Recently, I’ve seen an increase in the assertion that Americans don’t enjoy a right to health care. I’ll stipulate that I don’t see anywhere in the Bill of Rights any kind of statement that says anything like, “All Americans have a right to health care”, ok? Agreed. But don’t jump to the end.
Starting at the beginning of the Constitution, one discovers the founders expressed their opinion about why this new government should exist in the first place. They defined, in general terms, their vision of the most basic responsibilities of government. They wrote:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare (emphasis added), and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Only 26 words into the document it says: “…promote the general Welfare…”
I started thinking about the word “Welfare” as it might have been understood in the late 18th century – as opposed to today’s social safety net. Checking my (admittedly not 18th century) dictionaries, I found that my American Heritage Dictionary defines welfare as “Health, happiness, and general well-being”.
I turned next to the Internet and the Oxford English Dictionary. OED is one of the most respected dictionaries of the English language. Ok, they charge for access so I looked at the Compact Oxford English Dictionary online. They define “welfare” as “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group”.
Turns out, one can’t define welfare – as it relates to the human condition – without including health. Well, in fairness, Webster’s tries. They leave out ‘health’ and put in ‘well-being’ but when you look up ‘well-being’ in the same dictionary, it specifically includes “the state of being…healthy…”
The Founders were a clever group of guys with a solid command of the English language. I think they knew what the word ‘welfare’ meant when they wrote “promote the general Welfare”. They could have written, “promote the general health, happiness and general well-being” but they didn’t need to. There’s a word for that: welfare.
If one plans to take the position that Americans don’t have a “right” to health care since such a right is not clearly delineated in the Bill of Rights, then one must simultaneously argue that one does not enjoy a right to vote. Voting, after all, is not spelled out in the Bill of Rights, either.
But whether or not one defines health care as a “right”, certainly the Founders described it as a fundamental function of government and I’ll tell you this: without question, I have the right to expect my government to perform its most basic functions…
(Note: this is a re-post from 2010. I like to do that from time to time, just to show how the situations change but never change. This essay had been correct for years before I wrote it and it’s still correct seven years AFTER I wrote it. Damn. The “edit” is because I forgot to add this note so I was just basically plagiarizing myself…)