It’s Positively Confusing
There’s a reason why so much political thinking starts out in the neighborhood of Idealism, crosses Naive Street, and winds up in Stupidville.
The reason is confusion between negative rights and positive rights.
We all agree that rights are wonderful, and we’ve got a lot of them – at least in this country – and we should get a lot more.
But there are two kinds of rights – Getoutta Here Rights and Gimmie Rights. Or, as they’re called in political theory, “negative rights” and “positive rights.”
Negative rights are our rights to be left alone – to do, be, think, and say (and buy and sell) whatever we want as long as our behavior doesn’t cause real harms.
Positive rights are our rights to real goods – our rights to get things. The right to education. The right to health care. The right to a living wage, etc.
Negative rights are front and center in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence: “certain unalienable rights… Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” All 10 rights in the of Bill of Rights are negative rights (except, maybe, the Sixth and Seventh Amendment positive rights to a jury if you’re put on trial for violating the negative rights of other people.)
Positive rights are front and center in political-activism protests and politicians’ election campaigns – “A chicken in every pot.” (That was a Republican slogan in the 1928 presidential race… It came back to peck them in 1932.)
This chicken isn’t mentioned in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence because our founding fathers – savvy political thinkers – would have asked, “Where did the chicken come from? Who did it belong to before? How did the chicken get into every pot, apparently for free, without the right to be a chicken farmer being lost by someone?”
Your right to do, be, think, and say in no way impinges on anyone else’s right to do, be, think, or say. And, if you have even a rudimentary understanding of free market economics, you know that your right to buy and sell doesn’t impinge on the buying and selling rights of others.
But your right to physical items, such as a free education, impinges on everybody. In order for you to be given a thing, that thing (or some tax-and-spend portion of it) has to be taken from somebody else. The person from whom the thing is taken loses negative rights so that you can gain positive ones.
This is not to say that negative rights are always wonderful or ought to be unlimited in scope. You have the right to stand on a street corner and say, “I’m a Nazi pig!” Whether you have the right to stand on a street corner and say to passersby, “You’re a Nazi pig!” is a more complex question. And if you stand on a street corner with a bullhorn and yell, “YOU’RE A NAZI PIG!” in the middle of the night, the police should come and negate your negative rights.
Nor are positive rights evil. Free public primary and secondary schools are a benefit to society. (Although vouchers for private school tuition might be more beneficial.) And I’m in favor of college degrees that are at least reasonably priced. (I got government help paying for school… And not because of academic merit. The government’s attitude in my day was, “America needs mediocre students, too.”) I believe America should have a medical system that guarantees everyone treatment without bankruptcy from hospital bills. (Nobody should lose the house. The boat? Maybe. But not the house.) And decent pay for every job ($12 an hour for congressmen) is a worthy goal even if I think an expanding economy is more likely than a law to provide generous paychecks without driving people into the labor black market. (Congressmen getting paid under the table – except that seems to be happening already.)
But are these “rights”? It’s the right question to ask. Idealists should ask it. They’d be better off changing their terminology. Idealism ought to be expressed as moral obligation, not political cant. This particular respecter of negative rights is more likely to be moved by “Please” than “You’re a Nazi pig.”
When liberals, progressives, and so-called “democratic socialists” quit demanding rights and begin invoking duties – our society’s duty to fund education, provide health care, and pay living wages even to congressmen – then I’ll start listening.
Why Do We Call Rights ‘Negative’ and ‘Positive’?
Part of the confusion between the two types of rights comes from their bassackwards names. Negative rights produce mostly positive effects while positive rights can have negative consequences.
Blame the nomenclature on Russian-born philosopher, political theorist, and Oxford professor Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). He coined the terms “negative freedom” and “positive freedom” to describe how our desire to have a political system that (negatively) provides us with liberty clashes with our desire to have a political system that (positively) provides us with stuff.
Berlin was a great champion of “negative freedom,” but he was not a native English-speaker.
– P.J. O’R.