Freedom 201 – positive and negative rights.
Do you know the difference between a positive right and a negative right?
If you don’t, you might be tempted to guess, ‘well, a positive right must be a good or desirable right, and a negative right must be a bad or undesirable one, though that makes no sense because rights are always good things.’
If that’s what you thought, then you get an F.
Sorry, in freedom class we don’t give out blue ribbons just for having played. You have to actually get the right answer.
It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around initially, but it is important. You can’t earn your freedom badge if you don’t understand the difference.
We talk about rights all the time, but we seldom stop to think about what they really are.
When we say we have a right to something, what we are really saying is that we have the right to use force either to obtain or maintain that thing. Rights are all about force.
Positive or negative in the context of rights means offensive or defensive, not good or bad.
When we talk of a positive right, we are saying there is something for which we are justified in using offensive (initiated) force to obtain.
When we talk of a negative right, we are saying there is something for which we are justified in using defensive (reactive) force to maintain.
Notice the difference. One is about initiating force to obtain the desired thing. The other is about using reactive force to maintain something we already have. I’m not sure why the old philosopher dudes decided to use ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ to describe the concept, but they did.
If this doesn’t make sense, let’s use a couple of examples.
Let’s say we believe everybody has the right to a house.
If we believe it is a positive right, then we believe it is okay for a person to use force in order to obtain a house.
If we believe it is a negative right, then we believe a person who has a home can use force to stop others from forcibly taking it from him, but he can’t use force to obtain it in the first place.
Let’s try another one. We believe in the right to free speech.
If it is a positive right, then a person is justified in forcing others to listen to him, such as by going into a radio station and compelling them to allow him to broadcast his opinion.
If it is a negative right, then a person can’t force his voice on others, but he is justified in using force to stop others who are trying to up shut him.
Traditionally very few Americans have believed in the notion of positive rights for individuals. If I need a home, we don’t think it is okay for me to grab my gun and go move into my neighbor’s house.
We tend to see the wisdom of negative rights. If I want a house, I need to either build it or buy it, but once it is mine, nobody has the right to take it from me, and in fact I have the right to defend it.
Our government was founded on the principle of negative rights. The idea was that it couldn’t do anything at the collective level that we couldn’t rightfully do at the individual level.
Since individuals couldn’t initiate force to obtain their rights, the government couldn’t initiate or sanction it either. If it’s not okay for me to take my neighbors home to satisfy my right to a home, then it’s not okay for the government to take it for me either.
Are you still with me? Summary to this point: only negative rights are valid. The government was established to defend those rights.
Starting seventy years ago or so, a new train of liberal thought came along under the banner of progressivism. The new idea was that while it was still wrong for individuals to practice positive rights, it was good and desirable for the government to do so under the direction of enlightened and well-intentioned leaders.
FDR was the champion of positive rights by the government. The original Bill of Rights to the Constitution is known as a bill of negative rights. It lists the fundamental rights we naturally possess and that the government is obligated to defend on the one hand and prohibited from violating on the other.
FDR wanted to introduce a bill of positive rights as well. It listed all the positive rights a person possessed and that the government would be justified in using force to help them obtain. It contained such things as the right to a job, the right to a living wage, and the right to a home.
His belief in positive rights was the justification used for establishing Social Security and the other parts of the New Deal.
The idea was that while it would still be wrong for me as an individual to force others to purchase retirement insurance, I would be perfectly justified as an enlightened politician in forcing them to purchase it, as long as it was for their own good.
While FDR’s bill of positive rights was never formally adopted, it has increasingly become an accepted belief.
Most recently, the progressive crowd was successful in convincing us that we all have a positive right to healthcare. This was the justification for Obamacare. Barak Obama is a firm believer in positive rights. He wrote and talked extensively about the idea while still a professor. This belief makes him feel perfectly justified in compelling us to purchase health insurance.
Wrapping things up.
Most of the discord in our country boils down to our differing opinions on positive and negative rights.
There are those who firmly believe in positive rights, as long as it is the government doing the imposing and as long as it is a ‘right’ they happen to agree with. They are vehemently opposed to positive rights, however, when ‘rights’ they disagree with are being forced on them. There are many people on both the right and the left who fall into this category.
There are those who believe only negative rights are valid. They believe force should never be initiated. It should only be used defensively. There are people from both the right and the left who fall into this category.
Negative rights are the only truly morally defensible rights. Positive rights flow from the universal human desire to compel others to do things our way. Every thug and dictator in history has appealed to positive rights (god given or otherwise) as his justification for imposing his will on others.
If you are one of those hopeful, optimistic people who longs for the day when we humans figure out how to coexist peacefully and are wondering how it can be achieved, I will give you a hint. We will achieve it at some point after we have finally abolished the notion of positive rights.