Rights in a Free Society

The word ‘right’ is tossed around these days with little concern for its meaning. What is a ‘right’ and which rights should individuals be granted? Most people, from the average Joe to politicians in Washington, cannot answer this question in a non-contradictory manner. Such an important topic merits a full understanding by everyone.

At a philosophical level, there are two types of rights that individuals may possess: positive rights and negative rights. Both of these types of rights exist in present-day America, but there is a fundamental difference between the two. Positive rights and negative rights are not rights that are considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’, respectively. Rather, positive rights typically involve the right to something provided by someone else. Negative rights are characterized by the right to act without interference or coercion from others.

Some examples will help to clarify:

Suppose you graduate from Northwestern, land your first job, and decide to purchase a car. The car dealership you choose to visit is a bit out of your price-range–only Porsches are sold here. You cannot afford a Porsche and, consequently, the dealership does not want to sell you one of their cars. Suppose, though, that a few days earlier the federal government passed a law granting the right to a Porsche to all American citizens. Because of this new law, the dealership must give you a car, regardless of your ability to pay for it (lucky you). This is an example of a positive right–your ‘right’ to a Porsche requires the dealership to give you one.

A different scenario: you want to buy a Porsche and this time have the money to do so. You head over to the dealership and sign a contract for the purchase. As you are about to be given the keys for your slick new car, a cop walks in and tells you to stop the transaction. Apparently, a law has just been passed making it illegal to purchase luxury goods. Though you want to buy the Porsche and the dealership wants to sell it to you, the transaction is not allowed. The government has just restricted one of your negative rights–the right to engage in peaceful transactions with others without interference.

Other examples of positive rights include the ‘right’ to healthcare, the ‘right’ to education, the ‘right’ to birth control, and the ‘right’ to welfare. Note that each of these ‘rights’ force someone else to pay for you to have a good or a service, assuming you cannot pay for it yourself.

For a few examples of negative rights, simply look to the Declaration of Independence and the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights only require that others do not harm or otherwise coerce you.

It is not hard to see that both positive rights and negative rights cannot coexist in a society without issues arising. A Porsche dealership owner’s right to his property (a negative right) is infringed upon by a government decree granting all citizens a ‘right’ to a Porsche (a positive right). Though this example is a bit far-fetched, real world conflicts of rights are no mere anomaly. For instance, personal income is a form of property, and property is protected as a negative right. However, the federal government takes income away from individuals in order to pay for Medicaid, as healthcare for the poor is deemed a positive right.

Positive rights cannot exist without infringing on the (negative) rights of others. The two types of rights cannot coincide in a society without breeding class warfare and anger at the government. That being said, the only rights that can exist in a non-contradictory society are the two general negative rights: the right to one’s life and the right to one’s property. While on the surface it may not hurt a millionaire much to be forced to pay a hundred bucks for someone else’s food stamps, on a deeper level such an infringement of rights leads to a breakdown in the moral fiber of a country that allows it operate.

A free and just society is characterized by the protection of negative rights. Yet, Republicans and Democrats alike support numerous positive rights (albeit Democrats to a much larger extent than Republicans). Neither party seems to find issue with an entitlement state that is wholly redistributive in nature. Despite much of it being a complete failure, public education is supported by both left and right. If something is deemed a necessity, chances are there is some positive right associated with it in this country.

The biggest issues that America is facing today–out of control growth of government, exploding debt levels, and massive unfunded liabilities in the form of Medicare and Social Security–are a direct result of positive rights being granted by the government. The only long-term solution to these problems starts with a reexamination of the rights of individuals required for a free and prosperous society.

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