Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) likes to refer to healthcare as “a fundamental right and not just a privilege.” But what exactly does he mean? Is there really a ‘right’ to healthcare?

Debate over the purported ‘right to healthcare’ has quieted recently. Or rather, with concrete proposals under consideration, ‘rights questions’ have been drowned out by other concerns—things like cost, taxes, the deficit, a “public option,” end-of-life decisions, and so on. But the rights debate is well worth having because the stakes are so high. If Ted Kennedy is correct—if every American has a fundamental right to government-provided healthcare—then we are constitutionally obligated to provide universal health insurance. All the discussion of costs and deficits is beside the point.

The problem is that Sen. Kennedy is wrong; there is no fundamental right to healthcare. When the founders wrote of our “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they were referring to natural rights, things that we can enjoy on our own, without depending on government. They exist by nature—they are not entitlements to things produced by others. The rights to life and liberty are individual rights that I can pursue or neglect as I wish. Governments are instituted merely to secure these rights by providing the necessary infrastructure for their flourishing—this involves instituting a rule of law and order, providing for the public defense, and so on.

The idea that healthcare is a right is based on a theory of rights completely alien to that of the founding. Sen. Kennedy speaks of rights as if they are created by government, not derived from the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” According to Kennedy’s thinking, the only way that rights exist is through positive government action; the natural rights theory is both outdated and discredited.

Inevitably, these two conceptions of rights clash. Government must infringe on some citizen’s natural rights to liberty and property to grant benefits to other citizens and, in doing so, making the beneficiaries dependent on government. Over time, as natural rights are subdued to modern, positive rights, we all become dependent on government—this is the direction we are moving in.

This is the basic issue that separates the two schools of thought—whether we are to be equally self-reliant, or equally dependent. Alexis de Tocqueville’s well-known phrase is fitting here: “Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”