Thomas Jefferson on Health Care?

A friend of mine recently posted this to Facebook:

In response to the Healthcare debate – “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” – Thomas Jefferson

I raised a few objections over Facebook, but the character limits are, well, limiting, so I thought I would post them here in more developed form.

First, I think that for the right to use this argument is at best self-serving and at worst hypocritical.

Self-serving: I object to the war in Iraq. I might even go so far as to say that I “abhor the idea” of our entire foreign policy generally. But, I still pay my taxes – taxes that are used to fund the very foreign policy that I abhor. Would Thomas Jefferson argue that I am no longer obligated to pay taxes on such grounds? Or would he argue that the government should be forced to bend its policy around my particular moral stance on particular wars? Of course not. It’s ludicrous to even suggest so.

Furthermore, would the right acknowledge that argument as legitimate if I raised it in protest against our foreign policy? Of course not. The right is using an argument to its own advantage when it suits their purposes, even though they would dismiss the very same argument out of hand if it were used against their foreign policy. That’s the very definition of a self-serving.

Hypocritical: It’s possible that the right realizes all this, but they are using the argument anyway. That would be the very definition of hypocrisy.

Second, to use Thomas Jefferson this way is little more than prooftexting (a word that gets used a lot in Christian exegesis). Jefferson’s comment has a specific cultural, political, and historical context – specifically that the colonies were being taxed (disproportionately?) without representation. His statement was made in that specific context and should be read in that specific context. It does not have a direct reference to health care, because as one FB commenter pointed out, the founding fathers would have had no comprehension of our contemporary health care system.

(Of course it’s possible that Jefferson would have objected to all of the current legislation that’s being debated – but if he would have, this comment alone wouldn’t tell us so)

Third, as the same FB commenter rightly claimed, healthcare is not a Constitutional right, because the founding fathers did not have any conception of health care as we know it. But, no one is arguing that it is; rather, some of us are arguing that it should be. The founding fathers did not have any conception of health care as we know it, and that is precisely the point. They could not have made a Constitutional right out of something that did not exist yet (and consequently of which they had no knowledge).

Fourth, from a Christian perspective, why is providing universal health care to everyone – including the working poor who could never afford insurance – be something to “abhor”? Didn’t Jesus have a few things to say about caring for the poor? I could cite several passages (but this post is already the opposite of short), so I’ll cite one in particular:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

Lest I be guilty of prooftexting myself, let me make clear that I don’t think Jesus’ words here establish that all Christians must support universal health care. Instead, Jesus’ words undermine the notion that universal health care is worthy of abhorrence.

On theological grounds and on the grounds of common sense, I really don’t understand how adopting a government policy that ensures that the poor are cared for qualifies as something to be “abhored.”

I welcome your thoughts. I’m sure there are some who disagree, and I would love to hear how you respond.


The friend who originally posted this expanded on his original post and let me know that what he was opposed to is a provision that would use taxpayer money to fund elective abortions. I’ll join him in protest if that clause makes it into the final bill.


12 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson on Health Care?

  1. Now that you’ve seen my argument on FB, I think you would agree that it is neither self-serving or hypocritical. I would also ask this…Your entirely opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan right? But your correct in saying that your taxes are helping pay for those wars.
    Do you believe that would justify you not paying taxes? Even if it meant you would go to jail? What about Christian leaders that were jailed for being conscientious objectors to WW2? Do you view that in the same light? If yes or no, why?

    1. Now that you’ve seen my argument on FB, I think you would agree that it is neither self-serving or hypocritical.

      Absolutely, hence the update to the post. But, you’re not the only person I’ve heard who is making that argument against health care reform generally … I tend to think that people who make that argument haven’t thought through it thoroughly enough.

      Your entirely opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan right?

      I think just war is possible, at least theoretically, but Christian just war theory has almost included one specific point that modern warfare cannot ensure — a just war cannot take innocent life. Given the types of weapons, bombs, etc., that we now employ, it’s almost impossible to wage and win a war without killing innocent people (on both sides).

      The war in Iraq: let’s face it, the Bush administration lied to us intentionally or unintentionally. Either way, we went to war under false premises.

      Some good has come out of it, in that they are no longer ruled by a tyrannical dictator; however, only time will tell if the democracy will stabilize after we leave (there’s good reason to be skeptical, don’t you think?).

      But how many innocent men, women, and children died? Shouldn’t that grieve our hearts?

      Furthermore, just war theory would argue that just wars are defensive wars, not offensive wars. The war in Iraq was a preemptive, offensive war. It wasn’t just from a Christian just war perspective.

      The war in Afghanistan: At least this war is defensive in that we are seeking out the terrorists behind 9-11, so I don’t object on those grounds.

      The problem I have with this war is that I don’t think we can win. Have you heard of the book The Starfish and the Spider? It’s a book about leadership with implications for the war in Iraq. Its main premise is that you can cut the leg of a spider and cripple it permanently, but you can cut an appendage off a starfish, and it will grow back — what type of leader do you want to be?

      Al Qaeda is a starfish. Every leader that we kill becomes a martyr.

      I don’t think it’s a war we can win with fighting; it’s a war of ideas that can only be won by a better idea (which means it’s going to take a long time).

      Do you believe that would justify you not paying taxes? Even if it meant you would go to jail? What about Christian leaders that were jailed for being conscientious objectors to WW2? Do you view that in the same light? If yes or no, why?

      No, I’m not going to stop paying my taxes because of our foreign policy.

      I have a lot of admiration for that type of civil disobedience and conscientious objection, but I would never say that a Christian should do that or is obligated to do that.

    2. And just ot make sure I say this clearly, I don’t think you’re a hypocrite. I didn’t mean to imply that at all. It’s the argument itself that comes across as hypocritical to me.

      I was just using the FB post as a segue to talk about the issue generally.

  2. @ David,

    as a citizen of a western nation with both a public health care system and a vigourous private system which works alongside, I have to admit I’m completely mystified, firstly that the US doesn’t have some kind of basic public health and secondly why anyone would protest so strenuously against it when proposed. It seems like a no-brainer to me and many others who are looking from the outside at this- why would anyone NOT want it? I really am very curious – why do you oppose health care reform? Do you oppose some specific part of the proposals being made, or do you object to the whole idea generally? Obviously I don’t think you can answer for all those who oppose, but you are first person I’ve come across on teh interwebs who is an opponent, and I would really like to know.

    1. One of the things I learned from David’s brother on FB was that David’s brother does not have health care (his jub cut it due to the economy), and he is still opposed to a public option.

      While I don’t agree with his political position, I do admire the consistency. He’s opposed to gov’t handouts, as he sees a public option to be, and he’s not going to take him himself when he’s fallen on hard times.

      1. That is at least consistent. I just don’t understand why one would apply that logic to healthcare and not, say, funding for roads, to take a random example.

  3. Birdisflown,

    I do not reject health care reform in general. I think everybody is aware that we need to fix a broken system. I do reject a few things. If they plan to use my tax dollars to fund abortion is a big one. If they plan on forcing people to pay money if they personally do not want health care. If they take away our options and try to implement complete universal health care, etc.

    I think the plan they are going towards is a socialistic plan. History has proven that Socialism does not work…ever. It’s a nice thought, but a practical impossibility.

    To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how to fix health care. All I know is what we as a nation cannot afford to see, both fiscally and morally, in health care.

    1. David,

      Here’s is what I can’t seem to figure out, and I think it’s confusion that is shared by those of us who lean to the left on this particular issue.

      Conservatives are very quick to label Obama and his policies as “socialist.” But I don’t see how the claim is justified; here’s why.

      In the first place, the plan that Obama publicly endorsed is not even socialized medicine; he proposed a public option that would provide coverage to 5% or fewer Americans. That’s not socialized medicine.

      Second, even if he were proposing socialized medicine, socialized medicine is not the same thing as Socliaism. The glaring example that comes to mind is our free market economy, which is the bedrock of Capitalism.

      I’m not asking this question rhetorically: aren’t conservatives making the quintessential strawman out of Obama and the plan he wants to pass into law?

  4. Ben, I understand that socialized medicine is not socialism. But it is a step towards it. Right now we have a lot of Gov’t funded organizations. Libraries, Fire, Police, etc. Some are absolutely vital and some are not. Now we are going to add to the list health care? I just don’t think that’s the greatest plan.
    Like I said, I don’t know how to fix it, but I don’t think bigger Gov’t is the answer.
    About your non rhetorical question. I don’t believe all conservatives are making a strawman out of Obama and his plans. Some are (death panels, etc.), but not all. I think most are just concerned with more Gov’t takeover. I think their afraid of waiting lists months long and doctors that are overworked and underqualified.
    Are their fears legit? I guess time will tell.

    1. Hi David,

      I understand the suspicion about the idea of new taxes, new bureaucracy, etc. I can kindof understand the worry about abortion – I can’t see why that can’t remain off the list of publicly funded procedures if it’s such a problem, though, and that issue shouldn’t be a stumbling block to providing general medical services. What I don’t understand is how somehow every other developed country in the world considers health care to be the most essential of essential services, extended to every member of their society in some form or other, except the US. How is health care less vital than libraries? I say this as a huge fan of both health and libraries 🙂

      I don’t think any of the health care models of the developed world (with the possible exception of Sweden, I’d have to look into that) have socialised medicine per se – assuming that ‘socialised medicine’ means that all health care for everyone is controlled and paid for by the government from tax revenue. They all have publicly funded healthcare, which pays for basics, and individuals can choose to have private treatment if they wish – which may get them treated faster or to a higher standard, or may just mean they get a plusher-looking hospital room and their choice of specialist doctor. But the basics are covered, more or less, with the occasional fight about what should be considered a basic and what should be considered an extra. Why why why is this such a bad thing? Why is is it so wrong to contemplate having everyone who pays taxes pay a little extra in the knowledge that if they are diagnosed with cancer or their neighbour’s child has an asthma attack or their grandma needs a cataract removed there is a way for them to be treated adequately without having to find thousands of dollars to pay at the time?

      Incidentally, individuals are encouraged to take up private health insurance in Australia, there’s even a tax rebate for doing so – in other words, you pay less tax because you are paying for yourself. It’s not like governments _want_ to be responsible for everyone.

      1. Why why why is this such a bad thing?

        I don’t want to speak for anyone, but the arguments I’ve heard from the right are this:

        1) Ideological: It’s not the role of government to meddle in one of the biggest revenue-generating industries in the country.

        2) Ideological: It’s not the role of government to control my health care.

        3) Fiscal: We can’t afford it without placing additional burdens on the taxpayer.

        Personally, I think these are substantial arguments (the rest is mostly bad rhetoric), but I also think there are convincing counterarguments to all of them.

        1. I don’t think the first one is a valid argument in any reasonable sense. Governments interfere with revenue-making enterprises and industries all the time. That’s what they do. When an industry directly affects the basic well-being of its citizens in the way health care does it really ought to be interfering, first to ensure that those private enterprises which generate revenue are not excessively profiting at the expense of their customers’ well-being, and secondly, in the case of an essential service, to make sure that those who can’t afford private access are not excluded.

          I think point 2 is a red herring. From the outside the argument appears to be about access, not control.

          3 is always a knotty problem. Nobody likes to pay taxes, and there’s all kinds of arguments for lowering taxes rather than increasing them, but I am not an economist. It’s worth looking at, say, Singapore’s model though. They have far less tax than the US (which has low tax for a developed country), and maintain an extremely successful and financially efficient public health care system. It is possible.

          Of course, It’s not really my argument to fight, given that I don’t live in the US. I just find it fascinating.

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