Back to Basics – Negative and Positive Rights
The Bill of Rights, believe it or not, was extremely controversial when it was discussed. The argument for it is obvious. Reluctant ratifiers wanted rights explicitly stated. The argument against the Bill of Rights is a little more interesting. If these rights were exclusively listed, then it implied that the government otherwise had the ability to remove these rights.
I highly recommend reading the Federalist Papers as well as the Anti-Federalist papers if you are interested in those debates. Links to both will be included at the end of this piece.
An important distinction to discuss is the difference between negative and positive rights.
Negative Rights vs Positive Rights
Negative rights are rights not subjected to removal from another. Our Bill of Rights is a list of negative rights. Our right to speak freely cannot be obstructed by others. We cannot restrict someone’s right to practice whatever religion they see fit (or not practice).
Positive rights are a form of entitlement. It would be a declaration that you have a right to firearms and have it provided for you. The 2nd Amendment, had it been a positive right, would be worded as “every person will be provided firearms.” It may be a goofy example, but you get the idea.
To demonstrate the difference between these two in the real world, we will be looking at healthcare as a right and the right to have firearms.
The Right to Bear Arms
This is an example of a negative right. Our 2nd Amendment declares that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed by others. Assuming we are lawful individuals, we all have the right to acquire and keep firearms in the name of personal security and protection from tyranny.
We do not, however, have the positive right to have those firearms provided to us or to have the prices subsidized by fellow citizens. Imagine how many people would lose their minds if we gave every American a gun at the age of 18.
Healthcare as a Right
Bernie Sanders, and many other “progressive” individuals around the world declare that healthcare is a right. What they actually mean is that everyone should have free healthcare at the point of service.
There is already a right to healthcare, but not in the progressive sense. Every individual in the nation has the opportunity to utilize healthcare institutions, provided they have the means to do so.
The Problem With Positive Rights
Positive rights, in most applications, result in a form of tyranny. It requires the labor of another citizen. If we declare that everyone gets healthcare and a gun, we declare that individuals must work to produce that product.
It would require individuals to work in healthcare and gun manufacturing. The fact that these industries already exist and grow is 100% irrelevant. Just because something exists does not give you a right to someone else’s labor.
We need to be very careful when we discuss rights. We need to really question if a positive right is something that we should or can enforce. The distance between liberty and tyranny is small. It is up to each of us to be responsible and educated about our rights and liberties.