Dr. Machan is Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. His latest book is Private Rights and Public Illusions, from Transaction Books. He is a contributing editor of The Freeman.
For the past 200 years or so a debate has ensued in political philosophy, on the issue of what sorts of rights human beings have. This is not the debate about whether we have rights at all, which is different. (Some hold that rights were identified by John Locke and others to bolster certain hidden goals, not because these rights actually exist.) What the rights versus “rights” debate is about is whether human beings have rights other than negative rights not to be killed, assaulted, kidnapped, or robbed. Negative rights, not to be intruded upon, are what Locke, the major seventeenth-century individual rights theorist, argued we all possess by nature. That is, we require certain social conditions when we form communities, because of the kind of being we are. We require the respect of our negative rights.
In response to Locke and his students, critics argued that the rights Locke identified are only some of those we possess. They maintained that we also have what are called “positive” rights: others must not only refrain from killing, assaulting, kidnapping, or robbing us but owe us services such as welfare, health care, and education. The point isn’t that it is decent and morally proper for others to help us when we are in need. Rather they can be forced to provide us with what they can to help—their work, their earnings, the fruits of their talents–just as others may be forced to desist from murdering or assaulting us.
The recent debate in the United States about government-supplied health care illustrates the conflict between these two views of rights. Negative rights theorists argue that individuals ought to strive for living properly, for flourishing in voluntary association with each other, while positive rights theorists argue that individuals naturally belong to each other, as parts of an organic body. While Locke put on record the former theory, Karl Marx, who thought little of rights, spawned this alternative view of social relations. He declared that “The human essence is the true collectivity of man,” meaning we are essentially “species beings,” parts of the larger organic body of humanity. Others proceeded to soften this hard-line collectivist position into the milder sounding positive rights theory.
Some misunderstand the nature of positive rights, thinking that they simply arise out of an elaboration of negative rights. When columnist George Will noted a while ago that one official in our government leaned toward authoritarianism by inventing positive rights, ones not listed in the U.S. Constitution, someone criticized him along these lines: “[T]he Constitution has been amended in the past to include the ‘right’ to vote for African-Americans, women and 18-year-olds, as well as the right to be free from slavery and involuntary servitude.”
The amendments the critic mentions are, however, drastically different from those advocated by many big-government theorists. Many of the amendments are simple elaborations, for more specialized cases, of the basic negative rights everyone possesses by nature. The “right to vote.” is an application of the right to liberty to the area of political action: government may not prevent an adult citizen from fully participating in the political system. The right to be free from slavery is a simple corollary of the negative right to liberty, as is the right to be free from involuntary servitude. Just how different such amendments are from those proposed by advocates of positive rights can be appreciated when we consider that all positive rights imply involuntary servitude. If one is forced to make provisions for the health care, social security, or related needs of others, one is forced to serve them, plain and simple.
The debate is important but one must be careful not to misunderstand it. Basic negative rights need at times to be spelled out in some detail, made applicable to new areas of human conduct and problem-solving. For example, the right to freedom of speech–which spells out the right to liberty for communication-may need to be developed further in light of the growth of the electronic communications “superhighway.” The right to own property had to be developed further to clarify ownership of portions of the electromagnetic (broadcast) spectrum. It can be shown, by careful logical reasoning, that these refinements follow from our basic negative rights.
Positive rights, however, violate our basic negative rights, place us in servitude to others, and therefore can only be fraudulently presented as things derived from our natural rights. We should be on guard when those who wish to solve social problems advocate unjustified power for the government by distorting the rights we all have. We have only negative rights. Positive “rights” are deceptive inventions that capitalize on the soundness of the theory of negative rights for dangerous purposes, leading, indeed, to the subversion of the original function of the concept of basic individual rights.