Health care and education are human rights

By Mike Tudoreanu

With the recent campaign for the abolition of student debt, there has been a lot of debate around the question of whether or not education is a right. There is also a similar debate around health care, so it would be good to take some time to clarify the issue.


A human right is something that should be guaranteed and provided to all people free of charge, financed by some form of taxation. To say that something is a human right is to say that everyone deserves to get it, regardless of who they are and what they do in their lives. Society and government already recognize many such rights either explicitly or implicitly. You have the right to protection against violent attack by individuals and by foreign armed forces. You have the right to seek punishment against someone who has wronged you by taking them to court. You have the right to speak freely in most public places. And so on.

Why do you have these rights? Most societies in human history did not guarantee any rights in any systematic way. For example, if you lived in 16th century England and someone killed your brother, you could not get them punished if they were higher than you in the social hierarchy, so basic justice and security were not treated as rights. But in recent centuries, more and more societies have come to agree that there are certain basic things which all human beings deserve to have simply for being human.

First of all, we deserve to live and to be protected from physical harm. This is the reason why the government provides us with protection against those who might try to murder us. And it is precisely for the same reason that health care is a human right. After all, if your life is threatened, what difference does it make if the threat comes in the form of a gun or a cancerous tumor? They are both equally capable of killing or severely hurting you. And the government needs money – tax money – to fight either one of them. If we get tax-funded protection from murderers, rapists and even petty thieves, why should we not also get tax-funded protection from diseases and injuries?

In fact, most people already implicitly agree that at least some kinds of health care are a human right. If you get hit by a car, the paramedics won’t ask you for cash or a credit card before they save your life. That kind of medical service is provided for free – in other words, it’s provided as a right. This is because it’s necessary to save people from a critical injury that happened to them through no fault of their own. Now the question is: how is that different from heart disease, or cancer? Just like a car crash, those things hit you without warning and through no fault of your own. If we agree that all people deserve life-saving treatment when they get hit by a car, then logically all people deserve life-saving treatment every time a medical problem threatens their lives.

Another category of human rights are those considered necessary for people to live decent lives or to have a good society. Free speech is a good example. Being able to speak freely about your opinions is good for you for obvious reasons, and it is also good for society because it encourages lively debate and open criticism of those who hold great wealth and power. Free speech enhances people’s opportunities in life, develops creative and inquiring minds and makes us all better informed.

Education also provides exactly the same benefits to you and to society, and to an even greater degree. This is especially true of education at the college level and higher. An educated population is better able to make informed decisions at the ballot box, it is more likely to come up with new ideas and inventions and it is better able to look at major events and organizations with a critical eye. In addition, of course, education provides each individual with greater opportunities in life.

So why don’t we treat education as a human right? Well, we already do, but only to a limited extent. From primary school to high school, education is already provided as a right. We have public schools which provide education for free. No one in their right mind would suggest that all primary schools should charge money for their services. It is obvious what that would do to our society: children born to poor parents would not be able to go to school at all, creating a permanent underclass of people trapped in a cycle of poverty with no hope of escape. We could not tolerate that. Yet we already tolerate a milder version of the same thing. The massive and ever-increasing cost of college hasn’t created a permanent underclass yet, but it has robbed millions of people of the opportunities that come with education. And it has robbed society of the ideas, inventions and discoveries that could have come from those people if they were given a chance.

Certainly, providing free university education for all would cost money. But all human rights cost money. Free speech is protected by an expensive system of courts, judges and the associated staff. The government could always pay for higher education by diverting money from other uses – like, say, the bloated defense budget – or by slightly increasing taxes on the rich. Many other developed countries already provide university education as a human right.

I know there are conservatives and libertarians who like to draw a distinction between “negative rights” and “positive rights” in order to claim that the government should only uphold the negative ones. These so-called “negative rights” are those that can be described as “leave-me-alone” rights, in the sense that they only require other people to refrain from interfering with you, instead of requiring other people to provide something for you.

But this is a false distinction. Any right is meaningless unless it is protected. The right to not be murdered means nothing unless you have someone to protect you from murderers. The right to free speech means nothing unless you can sue those who try to silence you. And such protection costs money. Cops and judges don’t work for free. The police, the courts and the military are funded with tax money. Therefore, in reality, all rights are positive. All rights require other people to provide something for you, and usually that “something” is money. Health care and education are just as important – and just as costly – as the rights to life and free speech. They are all human rights.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].