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Posts Tagged ‘Positive Rights’

Back in 2017, I compared the welfare state vision of “positive rights” with the classical liberal vision of “negative rights.”

To elaborate, here’s a video from Learn Liberty that compares these visions.

For what it’s worth, I don’t like the terms “positive rights” and “negative rights” for the simple reason that an uninformed person understandably might conclude that “positive” is good and “negative” is bad.

Needless to say, I don’t think it’s good for people to think they have a right to other people’s money.

That’s why I prefer Professor Skoble’s use of the terms “liberties” and “entitlements,” which we also find in this slide from Professor Imran Ahmad Sajid of the University of Pakistan.

As you might expect, there are plenty of politicians who try to buy votes with an agenda of “positive rights.” Bernie Sanders, for instance, constantly argued that people have a “right” to all sorts of goodies.

But he wasn’t the first to make the case for unlimited entitlements.

Franklin Roosevelt was one of America’s worst presidents, in part because his policies deepened and lengthened the Great Depression. But also because he pushed the idea that people have the right to get all sorts of taxpayer-financed handouts.

Let’s see what some other people have to say about this topic.

In his National Review column, Kevin Williamson looks at the logical fallacy of positive rights.

Positive rights run into some pretty obvious problems if you think about them for a minute, which is why so much of our political discourse is dedicated to moralistic thundering specifically designed to prevent such thinking. Consider, in the American context, the notion that health care is a right. Declaring a right in a scarce good such as health care is intellectually void, because moral declarations about rights do not change material facts. If you have five children and three apples and then declare that every child has a right to an apple of his own, then you have five children and three apples and some meaningless posturing — i.e., nothing in reality has changed, and you have added only rhetoric instead of adding apples. In the United States, we have so many doctors, so many hospitals and clinics, so many MRI machines, etc. This imposes real constraints on the provision of health care. If my doctor works 40 hours a week, does my right to health care mean that a judge can order him to work extra hours to accommodate my rights? For free? If I have a right to health care, how can a clinic or a physician charge me for exercising my right? If doctors and hospitals have rights of their own — for example, property rights in their labor and facilities — how is it that my rights supersede those rights?

And here’s what he says about “negative rights.”

A negative right is a right to not be constrained. The right to free speech, for example, implies only non-interference. The right to freedom of the press doesn’t mean the government has to give you a press. The good of negative freedom is, in the economic sense, not rivalrous — your exercise of free speech doesn’t leave less freedom of speech out there for others to enjoy

And Larry Reed opines on the issue for the Foundation for Economic Education.

America is a nation founded on the notion of rights. …Despite the centrality of rights in American history, it’s readily apparent today that Americans are of widely different views on what a right is, how many we have, where rights come from, or why we have any in the first place. …if you need something, does that mean you have a right to it? If I require a kidney, do I have a right to one of yours? Is a right something that can or should be granted or denied by majority vote?

He helpfully provides a list of negative rights (a.k.a., liberties).

And he argues that positive rights (a.k.a., entitlements) are not real rights.

The bottom line, he explains, is that so-called positive rights impose obligations on other people.

Indeed, they can only be provided by coercion.

The first list comprises what are often called both “natural rights” and “negative rights”—natural because they derive from our essential nature as unique, sensate individuals and negative because they don’t impose obligations on others beyond a commitment to not violate them. The items in the second are called “positive rights” because others must give them to you or be coerced into doing so if they decline. …while I believe neither you nor I have a right to any of those disparate things in the second list, I hasten to add that we certainly have the right to seek them, to create them, to receive them as gifts from willing benefactors, or to trade for them. We just don’t have a right to compel anyone to give them to us or pay for them.

There’s not much I can add to this issue, given the wisdom contained in the video and in the articles by Williamson and Reed.

So I’ll close with the should-be-obvious point that a system based on entitlements only works if there are enough people pulling the wagon to support all the people riding in the wagon.

But that kind of society contains the seeds of its own downfall (think Greece or Venezuela) because it subsidizes dependency and penalizes production.

Which means, as Margaret Thatcher warned us, that positive rights can’t be provided when politicians run out of other people’s money.

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