Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Positive and Negative Rights

In the field of political science and philosophy, there are generally two basic conceptions of rights. On one hand, there is the idea of negative rights, a right "from", and on the other hand there is the idea of positive rights, a right "to". Stated more specifically, if Jones has a negative right to be free from violence, then everyone else in society, has an obligation to refrain from enacting violence on Jones's person. If Jones has a negative right to be free in his property, then everyone else in society has an obligation to refrain from invading, vandalizing or stealing Jones's property. If Jones has a negative freedom of religion, then everyone else in society has an obligation to refrain from forcing him to practise or not practise a particular religion.

However, suppose that Jones has a positive right to property - this inevitably would bestow an obligation on others to act in such a way as to give jones the property. Suppose that Jones has a positive right to daycare. This inevitably would mean that others have an obligation to produce that daycare. If Jones has a positive "right to food", then others have an obligation to produce and sell that food, which requires labor and capital. If Jones has a positive "right" to "equal wealth", then those who have more wealth have an obligation to cough up the money. If Jones has a positive "right to a smoke-free environment ", then this imposes on obligation on people to ban smoking in the private establishments that they own.

While the concepts of negative rights and positive rights are diametrically opposed in this sense, both impose obligations. But what distinguishes them is the type of obligation that they impose; positive rights impose an obligation on others to do certain positive actions, while negative rights impose an obligation on others to refrain from taking certain actions. Commonly, proponents of positive rights are imposing demanding obligations on others to provide for goods and services such as welfare, education, medical care, daycare, developed housing, postal services and transportation.

Proponents of negative rights argue that such things are goods and services, not rights or privileges. Common political rights extracted from the conception of negative rights is freedom from violence, in exchange, property, contract, speech, religion, association, equal rights under the law and freedom from slavery. In contrast to positive rights, these negative rights require no obligation for people to take positive action; they require the lack of particular positive actions.

A negative right is a right not to be subjected to an action of another human being, or group of people, such as a state, in the form of violence or coercion. If negative rights could be reduced to two words, it would read: non-aggression and non-coercion. The principle of negative rights essentially boils down to the dictum: each individual can act as they please so long as they do not use aggression or coercion against others. On the other hand, a positive right is a right to be provided with a particular end, usually a good or service, through the action of another person or the state.

It would be correct to conclude that positive rights must be coercive or forceful. Positive rights requires that certain people be guaranteed positive outcomes which require the coercion of others to produce it. Inevitably, positive rights demand that others do certain positivistic things, regaurdless of their will. Negative rights require that others abstain from doing certain things, and can be achieved by a sheer act of will on the part of individuals. Negative rights have more to do with the means to ends and the lack of certain actions, while positive rights are claims of a "right" to a particular end requiring certain actions on the part of others.

Further, a world in which all positive rights obligations are met is simply a utopian impossibility. In short, the obligations to produce a particular good or service that is imposed onto every individual by consistantly applying positive rights cannot be completely met in reality. There is a very basic economic reason for this: namely, scarcity. Scarcity means that there is a finite quantity of resources, and there is a finite quantity and quality to human ability with respect to extracting those resources.

All positive rights obligations cannot possibly be met because it would require post-scarcity; it would require access to resources and labor capability that surpasses the finite amount of land, labor and capital in existance. In this sense positive rights are utopian when one consistantly applies the concept to it's final, "logical" conclusions. Taken seriously, it inherently must demand things that are not possible because in order to be consistant every single individual must be unanimous and be given pure equality in terms of ends.

It is a simple fact of life that there will never be total unanimity between humans and pure equality in results. It is simply impossible to appease every single individual's demand for particular ends because demand, by its very nature, is not static or uniform, and has a natural tendency to exeed supply. Scarcity tells us that supply will never fully meet all demand, because demand is theoretically limitless and in a constant state of flux. I most certainly would enjoy having 50 Billion dollars and 50 billion guitars, but that doesn't mean that this is something we can realistically whisk into existance out of nowhere, and it doesn't mean that I can claim a "right" to coerce others to produce it for me.

Essentially, in order to consistantly follow through the philosophy of positive rights as applied to every single individual in society, we must have more productive capacity and available resources then we actually do have in reality. If it were actually the case that supply exeeds or is equal to all demand at all times, then everyone would never have to work for the rest of their life - they would simply have whatever they want for "free"; there would be no price system or money. Such a notion is silly. The existance of money, prices and a market economy as such arise as an inevitable consequence of scarcity. Otherwise, there would be no reason for employment or having an economy where people buy and sell goods and services at all.

The proponents of positive rights inevitably are confronted with the absurdity that in order to consistantly appease the demand imposed by applying positive rights obligations to everyone, all genuine market exchange must vanish, because it would require an impossible scenario in which there is enough land, labor and capital to appease every single person's demands - and somehow in an "equal" way. But this is simply absurd because it would require pure self-sufficiency and post-scarcity. And we must note the simple fact of the diversity of demand in itself - each individual has different demands, which means that the things in demand will always be unequal and variant between people.

As has been pointed out by professor Walter Block, the utopianism of positive rights can further be demonstrated by making another distinction between positive and negative rights. Negative rights violations require a human agent. Positive rights violations don't. Suppose that a natural disaster occurs, such as a bad tusnami or hurricane in central asia. Could it be legitimately argued that any negative rights violations occured? Most certainly not - no individual used any aggression or compulsion against eachother. But if one takes positive rights seriously, one could concievably argue that the people's positive rights were violated - afterall, they had no food, adequate clothing, shelter, healthcare or education! This, of course, is not to say that it would not be wise to provide such victims with food and shelter, but the idea of positive rights would lead us to claim that each and every victim of the disaster has an abstract "right" to have others provide certain services, namely clothing and shelter, even against their will.

It is important to note that positive rights violates the idea of "equal rights under the law". If I have a positive "right to money", then if I have more money then you I also have more positive rights then you. If I have a positive "right to a car", and I own a more expensive car and more cars then you, then I have more positive rights then you. If I have a positive "right to education", and I go to school, while you don't, then I have more positive rights then you. The diverse and unequal allocation of goods and services in life makes positive rights impossible to apply consistantly to every single person. In contrast, negative rights apply equally regaurdless of the quantity of material objects and services. In this sense, positive rights are quantative, while negative rights are not. One cannot have more of a quantity of negative rights; each individual naturally possess the same ownership over their person and property.

Under negative rights, Jones may very well have more property and/or more valuable property than Jack, but this does not mean that Jack doesn't have property rights. It simply establishes that these people have two different property titles or two different quantities of property. Negative rights such as free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of contract are irrelevant to such questions of quantity. It is impossible to possess unequal quantity of such rights, because they are qualative and based on the abstention from certain actions.

Jones may very well speak and write more than Jack, but this does not mean that Jack doesn't have the ability to freely speak and write himself. Jones may practise religion more than Jack, but that does not mean that Jack doesn't have freedom of religion. Jones's job contract may pay him 20 dollars another more than Jack's does, but that does not mean that Jack doesn't have freedom of contract. Jack still has such negative rights based on the obstention from others forcing him to speak or not speak, to practise or not practise religion and to accept or reject a contract.

On the other hand, positive rights are inevitably faced with the inconsistancy that different individuals have unequal quantities of positive rights (I.E. goods and services). If it does not choose to address this problem, then it naturally leads to a system of selective privileges. Alternatively, it could then attempt to produce total equality, which is a utopian impossibility that has been attemped and failed by the communists. At such a point the proponent of positive rights isn't dealing in the realm of rights at all - they are simply seeking to equalize wealth and should admit it as such.

Another point is that negative rights are invariant to time and place. People in the present, past and future all have the same negative rights. Regaurdless of time and place, from a sheer act of will, human beings can posses negative rights by simply voluntarily choosing to restrain themselves from violence and fraud. Positive rights, on the other hand, are time-dimensional and place-dimensional. Since positive rights are simply an array of goods and services, and since the allocation of such goods and services across the world is unequal and always will be as such, then in practise positive rights are inevitably unequal and absurd when applied geographically. Surely, if an American has a "positive right" to such goods and services, then someone in India or Pakistan must have those same positive rights - but when we apply this to reality we see this it is impossible to have equal positive rights across land masses in such a way.

This works the same with time - it would be absurd to suppose that a caveman or dark ages commoner have a positive "right" to a modern 2006 standard of living; at the time there was simply no real means to the end that the positive right demands. It would be ridiculous to suppose that a peasant in the middle ages has a positive "right" to modern healthcare, daycare or rape relief. Likewise, positive rights demands about the present may tend to be asking for something that cannot realistically be produced with the current resources available. Viewed rather bluntly, it is simply utopian to suppose that every single individual in the world in the present has an abstract "right" to a middle class income, quality medical care and quality education. The labor and capital does not exist and to disperse such a thing geographically in an equal way is impossible.

The concept of negative rights, however, asserts that all people everywhere on the planet have the exact same rights. For example, everyone everywhere possess an equal right in self-ownership by the simple fact that they do control their own bodies; it is irrelevant what time or place the people are in. It is a self-actualizing right. The men of 1000 years ago, or 10,000 years ago, just like modern man, had self-ownership and owned property. Their property rights existed as a natural result of their control over it; in this way negative rights are natural in that they are measured by an individual's control and stewartship over their person and property. The cave man and medieval man had just as much of the capability to realize negative rights as modern man does, through the sheer act of abstaining from violence; positive rights, on the other hand, require particular actions that cannot realistically be realized by everyone at all times and places.

Regaurdless of time and place, negative rights can be in practise naturally because they do not demand any resources beyond what exists or any positive action on the part of others. Proponents of positive rights insist that the lack of a certain opportunity deprives a person of the freedom to choose that opportunity. But, as has been pointed out by David E. Kelly," a persons inability to run a 5 minute mile does not remove the persons freedom to do so, it is simply a fact of nature, nor is one's freedom restricted by a more limited menu at a dinner, or a woman's refusal to accept a marriage proposal a limitation of the man's freedom to marry her".

What is unequal is not the existance of the rights, but the degree to which people's governments and societies respect them, and the degree to which individuals express them. The capability of the individual to express negative rights always exists; what varies is the degree to which governments allow them to be expressed legally and the degree to which individual people choose to express them when they are both legal and illegal (note: yes, people do express their rights when they've been outlawed; an obvious case being the drug war). But positive rights are entirely dependant on literally whatever each government's laws are in their application, while negative rights are independant of government and pre-exist government.

In short, positive rights are entirely selective, and will therefore be applied inconsistantly by various individuals in a variety of ways; they will more often then not coerce one group of individuals to provide a particular good or service for the benefit of another group. To claim that goods and services in themselves are rights is simply disingenuous. Negative rights are naturally arising, self-actualizing and concrete; they always exist and do not require any particular positive action on the part of individuals. Lastly, if the ideology of positive rights is followed through consistantly, then no such thing as voluntary exchange of goods and services or charity can exist. It inevitably must replace free contract and exchange with an outrageous array of coercive collective obligations to the provision of goods and services; positive rights inherently violate negative rights. What the proponents of positive rights are dealing with is not rights, but the ends of wealth and the provision of services.

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