Positive vs. Negative Rights

Like the word Love, Rights is oftentimes used in different contexts to mean different things. Someone may say they have the right to Health Care. Others may say Education is a right. Protection from racial discrimination may be considered my right. Then there’s the Bill of Rights.

Going to piggy back / expand off of this clip from LearnLiberty.org to establish the differences between Positive and Negative Rights. As Skoble teaches, Negative Rights basically speaks to an unobstructed ability to choose or behave. This can also be called Liberty. In other words, if you prevent me from choosing to eat ice cream 24 hrs a day, you are violating my Negative Rights. In order to prevent that violation, basically, you need to stay out of my way and allow me to choose my diet.

Positive Rights, on the other hand, involves action due to/from me. These can also be labeled as Entitlements. When I agree to a voluntary trade with someone, we are both obliged to fulfill that agreement. As Skoble describes, if I pay for AAA and I need a tow, I have Positive Rights (an entitlement) to towing service per our agreement.

Where it gets messy is when someone’s Positive Rights creates an obligation for another, particularly when the obliged may not have agreed to the infringement on their Negative Rights.

The Obamacare mandate, for example, is attempting to assert Positive Rights to Birth Control. Interestingly, it also mandates guaranteed Psychological and Addiction Treatment coverage regardless of previous medical history or health or if you even want to carry that coverage. The argument against these Positive Rights comes down to the violation of our Negative Rights – to be able to choose which, if any, kind of coverage we need or want to provide.

The AZ 1062 Bill, which was defeated, is an example of legislators attempting to use the law to assert store owners’ Negative Rights to do business with whomever they choose. Opponents argued that everyone has a Positive Right to wedding cakes or photographs or the like – that the business owners had a DUTY to take their business. AN OBLIGATION! To do business! (Let that sink in for a moment.) My argument during the whole ramp up to the bill’s ultimate demise was that instead of passing laws to legislate Negative Rights, you need to attack the laws on the books that assign faulty Positive Rights.

Ultimately, it comes down to where or how you determine the balance of Positive and Negative Rights. If you believe our rights are endowed by God, then the fact that some legislators got together and passed hundreds of thousands of laws to define your rights should be, at best, a secondary consideration because it’s a matter of jurisdiction and authority. If I showed up on your property and started telling you who you could invite over to your house and who you couldn’t, you’d probably disregard anything I had to say because I have no authority. Today in some countries, the law of the land states you may not marry another race or religion. You can decide whether you will abide by that restriction or choose to disobey (understanding there may be consequences).

Even if you don’t believe in God or His authority to grant our rights, your worldview (whether it’s Utilitarian, Deontological, Pragmatic, etc.) should cause you to examine Rights in the context of “Who is Obliged?” and “Who is Entitled?”. Many people make the mistake of assuming that government grants us our rights. If that’s what you believe, then pretty much any of your rights are subject to disappear whenever a majority (or better yet a small handful of powerful influencers) decides it’s time to close that loophole. If a fascist regime were to suddenly seize authority over your town, state, or country, are you still obliged to follow the letter of their new laws? For the sake of humanity, I really hope that all of you are shaking your head saying “that’s crazy talk”. Now take a step back and see if your reaction is different just because those laws are passed by majority rule, the rich and influential, or the most educated ‘experts’ with fancy degrees.

This is usually the reason why I don’t use the Constitution or the Bill of Rights to defend my assertion of rights which is a trap many Conservatives fall into when arguing with a Liberal. I’m happy to see that the Bill of Rights agrees with me that I have the right to Freedom of Speech. But to base my right on the Constitution would mean that when I travel outside of the US, I no longer have that right. It also implies that prior to its ratification, we didn’t have those rights.

From a moral perspective, unless you’ve elevated “the law” and “government” into some carnal extension of God’s ethereal will, one has to wonder if adherence to the law is, in and of itself, a moral act. For example, if the law tells me recreational use of marijuana is permissible in Colorado, but possession of any kind is illegal in Utah, does geography really establish “good” from “evil”? Do all sins really ‘stay in Vegas’?


3 thoughts on “Positive vs. Negative Rights

Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s