Negative rights versus positive rights

Published by on Dec 2, 2013

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There are very few things where I agree with Barack Obama, but there is at least one. Back in 2001, he described the U.S. Constitution as a "charter of negative liberties." Now, unsurprisingly, he sees that as a bad thing. He would prefer that the Constitution (or the U.S. government freed from constitutional restraints) be permitted to bestow so-called "positive rights" on individuals.

Fortunately for us, however, the Constitution was based primarily on negative rights.

What is the difference between these concepts? For that answer I turn to esteemed economist and columnist Walter Williams. He explains that the concept of negative rights "refers to the absence of constraint or coercion when people engage in peaceable, voluntary exchange." The concept of positive rights, on the other hand, is "a view that people should have certain material things—such as medical care, decent housing and food—whether they can pay for them or not."

So what's the big deal? The existence of negative rights does not create conflict. I have the right to not be punched in the nose and so do you. I have the right to keep and bear arms and so do you. Everyone can have and exercise all of their negative rights at the same time without a problem.

Conversely, the notion of positive rights is fraught with conflict. If I have a right to certain goods and services such as healthcare or education, you must be coerced into either providing me with those services directly or funding those who do provide them. It should be obvious that this sets up an inherent conflict, because every positive right that is created necessitates the violation of someone's negative right to not face aggression against his life, liberty or property.

Unfortunately, as our nation has drifted away from the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the negative rights recognized by the Bill of Rights, we have begun to see the creation of more and more fictional positive rights at the expense of our actual, inalienable negative rights. What is the result? I turn once more to Walter Williams:

"What the positive rights tyrants want but won't articulate is the power to forcibly use one person to serve the purposes of another. After all, if one person does not have the money to purchase food, housing or medicine and if Congress provides the money, where does it get the money? It takes it from some other American, forcibly using that person to serve the purposes of another. Such a practice differs only in degree, but not kind, from slavery."

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