As the health care debate rages, many conservatives have correctly argued that government-run “universal care” will lead to medical rationing. To control costs, the socialized health systems of Canada and Great Britain routinely restrict patients’ access to expensive services. A Canadian with a possible brain tumor might wait months for his government-approved MRI scan, whereas an American can receive one within days.

Liberals will typically counter that a free market is just “another form of rationing” — but by price rather than government decree. It is unjust, they say, that patients with money (or good insurance) can receive MRI scans whereas those without money cannot. Hence, they contend, the government must intervene to guarantee a supposedly fair distribution of medical services.

Too often, conservatives then concede this moral high ground to the liberals and defend the free market on purely economic grounds — e.g., a free market would lower costs for everyone. This is a serious mistake. Supporters of the free market should not allow opponents to characterize the marketplace as a form of rationing, let alone an unjust one. Instead, supporters should defend the free market as morally just because it respects individual rights.

To do so, one must properly define “rationing.” As the writer Ayn Rand noted:

“Rationing” has a specific meaning of its own. It means: to distribute in a certain particular manner — by the decision of an absolute authority, with the recipients having no choice whatever about what they receive; it also means that all the recipients involved have an equal claim to that which is being rationed, and are entitled to an equal share.

Examples include sugar rationing during World War II and gasoline rationing during the 1973 oil crisis, when the government dictated the terms and conditions of sugar or gasoline sales.

But in a free society, the government should not be regulating such sales at all. Producers — not the government — created the sugar (or gasoline) in the first place. Hence, they have the moral right to sell it to willing consumers on any mutually acceptable terms. There is no “just” distribution of sugar or gasoline apart from the voluntary exchanges between producers and consumers in a free market.