Negative v. Positive Rights

Right off the bat, understand that negative does not mean bad, and positive does not mean good. Like getting back the results of a cancer screening.

We’re going a little philosophical this time, very much in the thread of posts related to rights, which I originally write about here (it will be helpful to read these, if you have not done so):

In this particular post, I need to explain the problem with people’s conception of the word “rights.”

“I have a right to healthcare.”

“They have a right to free college education.”

“They have a right to clean water.”

“I have a right to a living wage.”

And you can keep the list running…

If you go back and read my posts listed above, notably the three in the “On What Basis Liberty?” series, you understand that rights are not derived as an obligation of one party to someone else, but rather they are derived primarily from one party’s protection from someone else.

Let’s break that down in re-visiting it. I have a right to my own life because nobody else has a right to take my life. I have a right from a violation of my life. Likewise, I don’t have a right to steal my neighbor’s truck. He, accordingly, has a right from theft.

And that’s essentially what a negative right is. A negative right is a right from something. A right from someone killing you, harming you or taking your stuff. Negative rights follow from the logical conclusions drawn in the three posts mentioned above. (This also applies to things like speech or religion. I have a right to worship how I want, as long as I am not violating anyone else’s property, because nobody has a right to violate my life or liberty.)

Now to positive rights. Those phrases I placed above in quotes (ie, “I have a right to healthcare”) is an example of a positive right. The question is: are positive rights even rights at all?

Well, now, how can I even ask that!? Surely, it is the worst of humanity that would entertain such vile notions.

Well, maybe not. Here’s the problem. Every single positive “right” violates somebody else’s negative right: it puts a legal obligation on another person. For example, if somebody has a “right” to education, then, taken as the dominant “right,” it falls to someone else to provide that “right”. Now, let’s assume that nobody is there to offer their time as an educator. Well, if that is the case, and education is, in fact, a “right,” then somebody is going to need to be forced to teach via force or threat of force. And that, as you’ve already likely drawn the conclusion, is a violation of somebody’s right to life—their right to not be forced into any sort of servitude.

We could continue to look at other examples. Do you have a right to clean water? Then somebody must, as the logical conclusion, offer that clean water. Do you have a right to healthcare? Then someone is going to be paying for it. All of these negative rights are violated by a so-called positive right.

“But, but, Lukas, it’s not like people are actually forcing people to be teachers. People don’t have to be teachers if they don’t want to.”

Yes, I am aware. Nobody forced me to be a teacher. It is my passion.

To that counter-argument, though, I have two responses.

First, this is largely an academic argument showing that there is an inherent contradiction between negative and positive rights. You cannot have both. A positive right is an oxy-moron.

Second, there is, nevertheless, a very strong pragmatic side of this issue. It is correct that, at least in the United States, nobody is being forced to be a teacher. But taxpayers are forced to give money over for public education. Remember, aggression includes the threat of force. No, men with guns probably won’t show up at your house to collect your taxes, but they will if you don’t volunteer those taxes (after the auditors, of course).

Think about the extensions of this inherent contradiction with regard to healthcare. Do I have a right to good medical access? Then somebody is going to have to pay for that, violating their negative right to their property and the produce of their own labor. A positive right means that someone else has an obligation to surrender some aspect of their life, liberty or property.

And you can continue down the list to positive “right” after “right.”

Besides, what makes a positive “right” is terribly subjective. One person may say they believe everyone has a right to clean water, but I may say I have a right to a $100,000 per year salary (which really means that any employer I have has an obligation to pay me $100,000, regardless of the value I am offering his company). Who’s to say that the first person is right and I am wrong? There is no standard by which to judge what a positive “right” actually is.

And now the more antagonistic readers out there who don’t know me personally think I am of the more despicable of the earth. Based on the very fact that I support the non-aggression principle, I have already been marked by one internet troll as worthy of a lifetime prison sentence. So I get it. Ad hominem is an internet favorite.

But to believe that negative rights should be honored, and not violated in favor of positive “rights” does not make anyone heartless. I believe—and advocate for—abundant generosity. I believe it is far more loving and compassionate to volunteer your time to build wells in Africa, then to vote in politicians who will tax your neighbor to then provide those wells, instead. (And I haven’t even brought up a study that shows government charity programs have a less than 20% efficiency rating: meaning that less than one out of every five dollars reaches the person that money was intended for. Source link here.)

Do you believe firmly in positive rights because you truly desire to help people, as many who make the above claims do? Then donate. Offer your time and resources. Become a teacher in the inner-city. Begin a charity organization and ask for donors. Offer to pay for someone’s medical care. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Don’t use the threat of force to demand people donate to what you consider to be a positive “right.”

(Which reminds me, there is an excellent way to give to projects all over the world at Check them out!)

Understand, that every time you say someone has a right to something, you are advocating for the violation of someone else’s right from a violation of their person or property.

And in that understanding, might I encourage you to give generously and abundantly of your own person and property. But I’ll just try to influence; I won’t use a gun (or the threat of one).


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