What is college? What is health care?

The problem with “free college” is: What is college?

The problem with “healthcare is a right” is: What is healthcare?

I know, I know. The only “sophisticated” answer is that these things just go without saying. Who asks that? We just all know what these things are, right? Its not that hard.

But these questions are so key, so central. They begin and end the debates. If something is a right what is that a right to? What, exactly, should we expect from these rights?

Start with college. If it ought to be free, then what counts? What institutions? What formats? Who decides? And what happens when college just isn’t the best way to get educated or learn a trade? Certainly this will happen one day—just a few generations ago almost no one went to college, and those who did had quite a different experience than students today. Were they exercising this same right back then? When college changed, and when it changes again, will we still have a right to a free version of what existed before, when we thought up the right in the first place?

Now to health care. What is for me health care is not for you health care. I often go to the beach to clear my mind. It’s the healthiest thing I do each week—a true medicine for my body and spirit. Without this, my mental health would suffer. Others, however, find no such cure there. Others turn to other activities, and some to drugs—legal and illegal. For them, this is health care.

Health care. Care of health. Wellness maintenance. Body optimization.

(Already the problem emerges.)

Health care is not some coherent, boxed-up good. It’s not a cut-and-dry service. What counts as health care today—massages, chiropractic, Xanax-before-the-dentist—did not count just a few years ago. Insurance didn’t cover. Many common modern-day treatments, or the causation between treatments and wellness—didn’t even exist.

The questions, then: Did our grandparents have a right to the services we claim today are “health care?” A right they simply could not exercise because the suppliers of that right did not yet exist? And do individuals have any say about what, for them uniquely, constitutes a health care good or service?

No, you say. This is ridiculous, you say. I’m being unnecessarily difficult, you say.

I won’t concede that. My question is eminently fundamental. If I have a right to free college, what is college? If I have a right to health care, with is health care?

Dissecting property rights

Think about property rights.

Take this computer, for example. I’m assuming it’s yours. You own this computer. It would be wrong for someone to take it from you without your consent. You have the right to do whatever you want with it—destroy it, even.

Now think about your car. You own that car. It’s yours to keep until you don’t want it anymore, and nobody can take it from you without your permission. Same goes with your house, your dog, your lawnmower, your personal library.

But think too deeply about property rights, and you’ll realize things aren’t as clear cut as I’ve just made them out to be. For example, I’ve listed only material goods thus far. It’s easy to imagine when rights to ownership in material property is violated. But what about non-material property, like trademarks and slogans?

Coca-cola, for example, owns the word “Coca-Cola.” It’s a different type of ownership, though, because others are allowed to use the word as often as they want. I, for one, say it all the time. I’m even writing it here. COCA-COLA.

Have I violated Coca-Cola’s property rights? I don’t think so, but I’m actually not sure. If I have, who exactly have I harmed? To whom does the word “Coca-Cola” belong? John Pemberton came up with the name sometime in the late 19th century, but he’s not alive anymore. Technically the word belongs to The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, GA, so I’ve violated the company’s rights to the word. But people at this company come and go. It’s probably the case that no one works there today who worked there 50 years ago. The company, then, exists independent of the people who work there, which means the rights belong to an inanimate, non-living thing. What other property rights can inanimate, non-living things hold?

Another area where property rights get confusing is with regard to how ownership begins. When John Cabot claimed all of North America for England in 1496, did all of North American belong to England? I think most would say no. But what if he laid claim to a small, uninhabited island off the coast of Maine—would that be ok? I think most would say yes, as long as the island had truly never been inhabited before. First come, first serve, right?

There’s another gray area—first come, first serve. Imagine a pile of cash on the sidewalk left by someone as a gift to passersby. Say there’s a sign on the pile indicating that the gift belongs to whoever finds it and wants it. Both my neighbor finds the pile and calls me to come look at it. I grab it and take it for myself. Is it “rightfully” mine, as in no one is allowed to take it from me? He saw it first, but I grabbed it first. Who has the better claim, if any claim at all? Perhaps the city, who owns the sidewalk on which the cash was placed.

These are hypothetical situations, of course, but analogous situations are happening all the time in the realm of intellectual and digital property. These are serious issues with real-life implications.

My point here is to show that property rights aren’t very black-and-white, and that we should be careful when tinkering with them. Rights to intellectual property, digital property, privacy, and even material goods are fragile things. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how to divvy these things up. So take care when talking and thinking about property, and do what you can to further this dialogue in a helpful way—a way that recognizes both the undeniable importance of property rights to sustaining a rational market order and the gray areas inherent in the very notion of property.