BIDLACK | Why isn’t health care viewed as a right? Blame Jefferson

Author: Hal Bidlack - August 31, 2018 - Updated: August 31, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

A recent Colorado Politics story was the Colorado Springs Gazette’s lead story last Tuesday. The lengthy story, entitled “Fear Factor High in Health Care Debate,” is a careful look at both of our main gubernatorial candidates, Mr. Polis and Mr. Stapleton.

As the article notes, the two candidates have very different views on how to approach the issue that many Coloradans feel is the most important one the new governor will face. The article does an excellent job of reviewing the thinking – at least to the extent we can know at this point – on how health care should be handled. To vastly oversimplify, Mr. Polis in general supports the idea of a single-payer system, while Mr. Stapleton thinks market forces will somehow fix the problem, though he’s not real clear on how.

The article notes a favorite GOP talking point, that one estimate states that single-payer would cost the nation an additional $32 trillion in spending – a scary number. But the Democrats point out what Paul Harvey might have called the rest of the story – that single-payer will result in an overall reduction of health care spending of about $2 trillion. Sure, taxes will go up, but the health care prices most Americans pay will drop by nearly the same and might actually go down a bit. There are really smart people on both sides, and you can quickly get in way over your head. So, I could spend the next 2,000 words talking about it [Ed: no, you can’t], but I’d rather just blame someone else. In this case, it’s all Thomas Jefferson’s fault.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

If you set the way-back machine to the era of Mr. Jefferson’s greatest influence, you will note he was passionate about many things. He saw the role of government to be very limited, even for an 18thCentury man. But one area he did appear to support more governmental action (albeit not on the national level) was education. Mr. Jefferson was a passionate supporter of education, to the point of founding his own university. Mr. Jefferson believed that education was not only good for the student but was vital for the nation as a whole. He wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

So why do I blame Mr. J for today’s health care situation?

Most folks in the 21stCentury, aside from some extreme libertarians, accept that creating an educational system is a proper and needed function of government, often at the state and local level. But there is no similar consensus on the notion that basic health care is also a right to be provided by the government. And why do we believe that education is a proper governmental role, but not health care? I offer that the only reason we think that way is because it’s always been that way for us, our parents, our grandparents, and so on, back to Mr. Jefferson’s day. In that colonial time, there was no expectation within the people that the government should educate. Rather, education was a family responsibility, with 7-year apprentices (think really bad internship), education in the home (for the boys) and college if your parents could afford it and you could qualify.

Enter Mr. Jefferson and his then-radical emphasis on education. It is not too much of a stretch, I think, to credit Mr. Jefferson with what we ultimately became, an educated nation with a good literacy rate, though of course there is always room for improvement. In a letter, Mr. Jefferson bragged, “ours are the only farmers who can read Homer.” And in our modern time, few people ponder the rightness or wrongness of public education as a concept. Thank you, Mr. Jefferson.

But imagine a slightly different world, a world in which Mr. Jefferson had also pushed for basic health care. Imagine where we might be if other Founders had planted the seeds of national health way back then. Like education, we might now see a governmental role in keeping us healthy as “normal.”

I’m not at all sure that Colorado can take on comprehensive health care reform as a stand-alone state. But as a nation, I am sure we can. The question comes down to one of political will.

Where’s a good Jefferson when you need one?

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.