What Are Rights?

bill of rightsWe live in a rights obsessed culture. At every turn someone is claiming they have a right to something. Unfortunately people rarely think about what it means to have a right. Most of the time “I have a right to” is interchangeable with “I want.”

Rights come in two flavors – positive and negative. Much of what is demanded today are positive rights. Positive rights are the right TO HAVE something, the right to a job, to health care, to a certain vendor for your wedding flowers, etc.

On the other side are negative rights. Negative rights are the right NOT TO HAVE something (mostly not to have something done to you by the government.) Among these are the right to freedom of speech, religion, the press, etc. In the case of negative rights, the government in enjoined FROM doing something. With positive rights, the government is enjoined TO do something. The rights guaranteed by the Constitution, the one’s our Founders labeled “inalienable,” are all negative rights.

Why is that? Why does the Constitution not list the right to a job or to a place to live or to food to eat? After all, those things are pretty important, right?

It has to do with how rights are enforced.

In the case of negative rights, enforcement places no burden on the citizenry. If government fails to provide these rights, such as in attempting to censor the media, the courts get involved to rule on the constitutionality of the action. If it is determined the action violated someone’s rights, all that needs to happen is for the government to stop doing what they were doing. In other words, to leave people alone.

With positive rights it’s different.  If I have a right TO something, say a job, then someone else has an obligation to provide one for me. Since government creates no capital, they must either force someone in the private sector to hire me or hire me themselves using money appropriated from the private sector via taxes. Positive rights for one group always encumber another group with obligations.  Bottom line, enforcement of positive rights requires government to use force against one part of the citizenry on behalf of another part.

Positive rights are therefore often at odds with negative ones. For example, I cannot have freedom of speech at the same time someone else has the freedom to never be offended. The two are mutually exclusive. Which is why guarantees of positive rights are not among those in the Bill of Rights. We have, from God, certain inalienable rights. But among them is not the right to never be disagreed with or the right to the fruit of someone else’s labor.

When negative rights are respected and enforced, individual flourishing increases and government dependence decreases. But with a decrease in government dependence comes a decrease in government power, which goes a long way toward explaining the emphasis on positive rights so prevalent today.

In order to return our culture to health, we must recover the understanding of positive versus negative rights and restore negative rights to their place of honor.