The Positivity of Negative Rights, published in Veritas on 3/23
A few weeks ago, I attended the Fifth Annual International Students for Liberty Conference, which was held at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., from February 17-19. It was an incredible experience, primarily because there were over one thousand students, alumni, staff, speakers, and presenters, all of whom shared a common bond: an interest in liberty and a desire to remedy the broken political system of the U.S. Even though the details of our political philosophies varied, we were not divided by dogma because we were united through common action.
Aside from this spirit of community, another highlight of ISFLC was the various breakout sessions that students could attend. These sessions were hosted by a variety of organizations, such as the Atlas Network, the CATO Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, GOProud, the Institute for Humane Studies, Students for Liberty, and Young Americans for Liberty. I attended a number of sessions, including What is Austrian Economics?, Behind Canada: America’s Decline in Economic Freedom, Government Schooling for a Free Society?, Liberaltarians: Examining Liberty Through the Gender/Race/Class Lens, Law Enforcement Socialism, and The Militarization of Main Street.
One of my favorite sessions was titled, Can We Kill the Children from Salem? This session was sponsored by the Institute of Humane Studies and featured James Stacey Taylor, a professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey. Taylor spoke about negative and positive rights: what they accomplish, how they interact, and how they are different. He started with a historical overview of moral and legal rights. First, Immanuel Kant said that we should believe in natural rights because we need certain goods to have a flourishing life, such as property, autonomy, expression, interaction, and so on. He also believed that all people are morally equivalent, therefore allowing acquired goods to be legitimately protected from force by force and requiring all people to recognize the equal rights of others. Second, Thomas Hobbes thought that natural rights may not exist, but that this was irrelevant because all people are mutually vulnerable. This view leads to rights based upon reciprocity, in that all people must respect others in a way that they want to be respected. Later, John Stuart Mills combined these philosophies in his harm principle, saying that acting as if all people have natural rights is the best way to ensure natural rights and promote flourishing lives.
Taylor then went on to compare negative and positive rights. Simply stated, negative rights are freedoms from, whereas positive rights are freedoms to. For example, under negative rights, you have the right to be free from interference by others (interference in healthcare, property, income, etc.) and others have a duty to refrain from interfering with those things. On the other hand, under positive rights, you have the right to have free access to such things and others have a duty to provide such things to you. After giving this overview, Taylor used two audience members to illustrate how positive rights encroach upon negative rights.
Phil has money and his negative right says that others have the duty to refrain from taking his money. Justin has no money and his positive rights say that others have the duty to provide money to him. This is accomplished by taking Phil's money, thus violating Phil’s negative rights in order to provide for Justin’s positive rights. This means that negative and positive rights cannot exist at the same time and that we must choose to support one or the other. Personally, along with Taylor and most other conference attendees, I am a supporter of negative rights because they seem more basic and fundamental and therefore more natural and legitimate.
However, the U.S. is a land of regulation and welfare that is based primarily on positive rights and results in extremely limited negative rights. The positive right to regulated food that has been deemed as safe violates my negative right from interference in my desire to purchase raw milk or sell homemade lemonade. The positive right to relatively equal access to money violates my negative right from interference in my earned income. The positive right to protection from violent crime violates my negative right from interference in my self-protection through gun ownership.
Even so, I will not say that positive rights are all bad, because they probably are not. Additionally, certain rights can be either negative or positive: the right from interference in speaking freely and the right to free speech. The difference is that the basis of negative rights is freedom from interference, whereas the basis of positive rights is freedom to providence. Providence implies privilege and privileges are granted, not inherent. Thus, when the provided positive rights of one person violate the basic, fundamental negative rights of another person, we will know that the positive rights have gone too far.