Sunday, February 8, 2009
Positive and Negative Rights
In the United States there is a strong moral tradition that favors rights-based discourse over public policy. Given that this tradition is usually invoked without much philosophical clarity, let’s take a closer look. First of all, rights-based claims imply duties imposed upon others. There are no rights without corresponding duties. Failure to fulfill one’s duty constitutes a rights violation. Libertarians differentiate between two classes of right-based claims. If you claim a positive right, you are implying that another individual or community has a duty to expend time, energy, and/or resources on your behalf. For example, if you have an unqualified positive right to vote, but are unable to get to the polling place, then someone else must have a duty to pick you up at your house, bring you to the polling place, and then bring you home. Positive rights raise a number of puzzles. Suppose you are “able” to get to the polls, but are “unwilling” to expend your own time, energy, and/or resources to get to there. How might that affect the duties of others? Hence, if you invoke positive rights, you must specify how much of your own, time, effort and resources will be expended before a duty upon others is imposed. In short, there is always a grayish area between “able” and “willing.” If you live a half-mile away and are “physically able” to walk to the polling place, but are unwilling to do it, does the duty on the part of others automatically kick in? If so, then how does one decide exactly whose duty it is to drive you to the polling place, and how much of their time, effort, and/or resources are morally required to fulfill that duty. If you claim a negative right, then you are merely imposing a duty on the part of others to not interfere with your own efforts to act on your own behalf. If you have a negative right to vote, it implies a duty on the part of others to not interfere with your quest to get yourself to the polling place. Obviously, if I tried to forcefully prevent you from voting by either physically restraining you or by threatening you, then that would clearly invade your negative right to vote. That’s why poll taxes are widely regarded as rights violations. (Interestingly, no one questions whether the U.S government’s failure to declare Election Day a national holiday constitutes a voting rights violation.) Generally speaking, we are more likely to claim a positive right when we believe that we really need something than when we merely want something. Most of us are willing to accept the fact that the distribution of at least some of the good things in life are best left to the free market, while at least some things ought to made available to us through the good will of others, as a matter of duty. Americans do not have a positive right to own a Mercedes, ocean front property in Florida, or a Harvard education. But they do have a negative right to pursue those things without outside governmental interference. Finally, there is one more dimension to rights-based claims; namely, “How will that positive or negative right be monitored and enforced? If you have a positive or negative legal right, then that right is monitored and enforced by government. If you have a moral right, then compliance will be enforced by a moral community alone. Sometimes the duties that support rights are sufficiently supported by morality and sometimes legality is necessary. That’s why our most important rights are legally enforced. Libertarians argue that there are no positive rights, only negative rights.