During a recent rally attended by Politichick Ann-Marie Murrell, left-leaning attendees were chanting, “Health care is a basic human right” or “Everyone has a human right to health care.” The implication is clear. According to the left, anyone (in particular any conservative) who is opposed to a single payer, government sponsored health care program is by default against human rights. This is an outlandish criticism on an intellectual par with former representative Alan Grayson’s statement that “Republicans want old people to die sooner.”

The very core of conservatism is the protection of rights. Conservatism is a term that originated from our desire to conserve rights, namely our civil rights as spelled out in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, and our natural rights as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Criticism that conservatives don’t care about rights is baseless and unwarranted. The true root of the disagreement between the left and conservatives lies in the left’s lack of understanding about the meaning of “rights“ and their clinging to the vacuous concept of “human rights”.

First, what is a “right”? Men throughout history have struggled to develop a concrete definition. Edmund Burke wrote that rights are “human custom conforming to divine intent”. As such, any right would be accompanied by a corresponding duty. If I have the right to liberty, then someone must be willing to assume the duty of securing that liberty. Our troops assume this duty on our behalf each day. However, we often confuse a preferences with a right. For example, I work at a power plant. Our plant must remain in service 24 hours a day. Suppose I claim a right to weekends off. In that case someone would have to have a corresponding duty to work at the plant while I am off. My employer may provide such an arrangement as a lure to attract good employees, but I cannot claim a right to it. If I truly had a right to weekends off then someone could justifiably be compelled by the state to cover my weekends off. In that example that person’s rights would be violated.

The same is true of the healthcare debate. Certainly conservatives want to see everyone be able to obtain needed medical care. However, we recognize the hazards in claiming that care as a right. If we determine health care is a right to be enforced by the state, then the state must force some third party to provide my health care. The left wrongly claims the moral high ground due to their intention to provide everyone with healthcare (though the economic devastation wrought by this deficit growing program would create devastating unintended consequences). Conservatives on the other hand, find it immoral and unjust to demand that the state confiscate the legally earned income of another in order to provide my health care.

Health care is a privilege and a preference. It is not a right to be claimed at the expense of other citizens.  “Unlimited freedom must end with unlimited despotism,” Dostoevsky wrote. Not everything that we desire is a right. Those who claim a right to everything, soon find out that they have a right to nothing. The real rights of men and women are being destroyed at the altar of pretended rights that cannot be obtained.

Edmund Burke put it this way, “There exist certain real rights of all human beings in society. Those rights are as valid in India as in America. If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence. And law itself is only beneficence acting by rule. Men have a right to live by that rule. They have a right to do justice as between their fellows whether their fellows are in public function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents, to the nourishment and improvement of their off spring, to instruction in life and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do without trespassing upon others he has a right to do for himself.”

Would that we would be given enough freedom and an adequately civil society that each can provide themselves health care without trampling on the very rights that allow such a privilege to be obtainable. That level of freedom and prosperity for all citizens is the very core of conservatism.

In part II of this column, we will discuss the concept of “human rights”.

Chris Skates has 23 years’ experience in power plant chemistry and environmental issues. He is the author of the novel Going Green: For Some It Has Nothing To Do With The Environment and an Adjunct Scholar of The Cornwall Alliance.