Negative rights vs. Positive rights

E. Thomas McClanahan explains an important distinction in the context of the health care reform law and the economic turmoil in Europe:

During the health care debate, it was common to hear people piously assert that health care should be a right, perhaps unaware of the full implications. The ongoing strikes and riots in Europe, however, represent the long-term risks of the progressive vision, in which government-delivered social benefits are portrayed as personal rights.

No wonder they’re rioting in Europe. They believe their personal rights are being violated by budget cuts brought on by the sovereign debt crisis.

Government benefits expressed in this way are known to political scientists as positive rights, which differ from the negative rights with which we’re more familiar. Negative rights generally describe things the government cannot do — take your stuff without due process, stifle your right to express your point of view, lock you up without cause, etc.

Positive rights describe things the government says it will do for you. A good example was the Second Bill of Rights pushed by President Roosevelt. Everyone, he said, should have the right “to a useful and remunerative job … to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing … to adequate medical care … to a good education” and more. . . .

The problem is that elevating benefits to the level of rights confers an unlimited grant of power to the government. In the legislative process, laudable sentiments too often emerge as programs with unconstrained costs — or, in the case of the personal mandate in Obamacare, policies that rely on coercion. . . .
From government’s point of view, positive rights are marching orders. Heaven and earth must be moved to deliver the promises. The state grows rapidly and ultimately it outruns the capacity of the tax base to pay for it all, endangering the financial security of everyone.

Thirty years ago, Portugal’s government cost its taxpayers about 20 percent of GDP. Then a new constitution was written, chock full of positive rights — the right to housing, education, health, social security. The size of government doubled. Portugal’s borrowing costs, like that of Greece and Ireland, have ballooned.

It’s no coincidence that those who believe health care is a “right” were, like Pelosi, initially flummoxed by the notion that a serious constitutional challenge was even possible. Who could worry about legal niceties when the noble goal of universal health care is within reach?

Once upon a time, Barack Obama seemed to understand the kind of opposition a personal mandate would generate. That’s why when he ran for president, he was against it — and criticized Hillary Clinton for proposing such a thing.

via Obamacare and the risk of ‘positive rights’ – KansasCity.com.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    The problem with positive rights is the danger they pose to negative rights. If the government is granted power to grant people benefits and these are termed rights, when it is finally forced by reality to curb those rights, it may also decide that all rights, positive or negative, can be granted or taken away by the government, or advance the notion that some rights are more equal than others. Witness those many advocates of the First Amendment who can broach no curtailing of the rights enumerated therein, who are appalled at the Second Amendment, and try everything in their power to curtail its free exercise.

  • SKPeterson

    The problem with positive rights is the danger they pose to negative rights. If the government is granted power to grant people benefits and these are termed rights, when it is finally forced by reality to curb those rights, it may also decide that all rights, positive or negative, can be granted or taken away by the government, or advance the notion that some rights are more equal than others. Witness those many advocates of the First Amendment who can broach no curtailing of the rights enumerated therein, who are appalled at the Second Amendment, and try everything in their power to curtail its free exercise.

  • Rose

    I read recently that a community college student received a living stipend of nearly $1000. Another student taking basic math and business communication, a part time schedule, also received a living stipend. It seems common sense is not applied.
    Is this all related to the feminization of the culture?
    At an atavistic level, men expect to work for (and keep) the fruit of their labor. Women have a sense of entitlement.

  • Rose

    I read recently that a community college student received a living stipend of nearly $1000. Another student taking basic math and business communication, a part time schedule, also received a living stipend. It seems common sense is not applied.
    Is this all related to the feminization of the culture?
    At an atavistic level, men expect to work for (and keep) the fruit of their labor. Women have a sense of entitlement.

  • utahrainbow

    Rose @ 2
    “Is this all related to the feminization of the culture?
    At an atavistic level, men expect to work for (and keep) the fruit of their labor. Women have a sense of entitlement.”

    Ha, ha, that’s funny! That was a joke, right?

    I’m a little concerned that you weren’t joking, though, so I ask: do you really believe men are naturally hard workers, expecting only what they earn? Do you know about the Fall? Do you live in this world? No, Rose, men are naturally lazy, and will take advantage of any opportunity to work less and get more. It has nothing to do with “feminization” of anything.

  • utahrainbow

    Rose @ 2
    “Is this all related to the feminization of the culture?
    At an atavistic level, men expect to work for (and keep) the fruit of their labor. Women have a sense of entitlement.”

    Ha, ha, that’s funny! That was a joke, right?

    I’m a little concerned that you weren’t joking, though, so I ask: do you really believe men are naturally hard workers, expecting only what they earn? Do you know about the Fall? Do you live in this world? No, Rose, men are naturally lazy, and will take advantage of any opportunity to work less and get more. It has nothing to do with “feminization” of anything.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I think it has more to do with the baby-fication of culture. We don’t want to grow up and be responsible for our own well being. We want the State to change our diapers for us.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I think it has more to do with the baby-fication of culture. We don’t want to grow up and be responsible for our own well being. We want the State to change our diapers for us.

  • DonS

    SKP @ 1 states the problem well. Government has no resources of its own. Whatever it does comes at the expense of someone else. And everything it does is done through regulation, i.e., coercively. In other words, to perform any function, government necessarily forces certain people to do certain things. Moreover, there is at least a civil penalty, and often a criminal one, for not complying.

    So, when we determine to confer “positive” rights to people through the mechanism of government, it is absolutely necessary to infringe upon the natural rights of others. The result is to reduce freedom for us all.

  • DonS

    SKP @ 1 states the problem well. Government has no resources of its own. Whatever it does comes at the expense of someone else. And everything it does is done through regulation, i.e., coercively. In other words, to perform any function, government necessarily forces certain people to do certain things. Moreover, there is at least a civil penalty, and often a criminal one, for not complying.

    So, when we determine to confer “positive” rights to people through the mechanism of government, it is absolutely necessary to infringe upon the natural rights of others. The result is to reduce freedom for us all.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    “Anyone who says that economic security is a human right, has been too much babied. While he babbles, other men are risking and losing their lives to protect him. They are fighting the sea, fighting the land, fighting diseases and insects and weather and space and time, for him, while he chatters that all men have a right to security and that some pagan god — Society, The State, The Government, The Commune — must give it to them. Let the fighting men stop fighting this inhuman earth for one hour, and he will learn how much security there is.” — Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and early founder of the Libertarian party)

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    “Anyone who says that economic security is a human right, has been too much babied. While he babbles, other men are risking and losing their lives to protect him. They are fighting the sea, fighting the land, fighting diseases and insects and weather and space and time, for him, while he chatters that all men have a right to security and that some pagan god — Society, The State, The Government, The Commune — must give it to them. Let the fighting men stop fighting this inhuman earth for one hour, and he will learn how much security there is.” — Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and early founder of the Libertarian party)

  • http://www.newreformationpress.com Patrick Kyle

    The problem with ‘positive rights’ is that they are an a priori claim on the time, talent, and resources of others. Take for instance medical doctors. They spend years of their lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money to acquire the knowlege and skill their vocation demands. The so called ‘right’ to healthcare places a claim on the time, effort, and money spent by the individual to become a physician, forcing them through coercion (read that regulation) to dispense their skill at the whim of the regulators and get recompensed for their work at whatever rates the government thinks fair.

    The same is true for the right to housing (contractors and construction workers) and the right to a job. (any employer)

    We will have a front row seat for the coming debacle in the Eurozone because of such hogwash as ‘positive rights’ and a ‘unified currency.’

    Mike, that is a great quote.

  • http://www.newreformationpress.com Patrick Kyle

    The problem with ‘positive rights’ is that they are an a priori claim on the time, talent, and resources of others. Take for instance medical doctors. They spend years of their lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money to acquire the knowlege and skill their vocation demands. The so called ‘right’ to healthcare places a claim on the time, effort, and money spent by the individual to become a physician, forcing them through coercion (read that regulation) to dispense their skill at the whim of the regulators and get recompensed for their work at whatever rates the government thinks fair.

    The same is true for the right to housing (contractors and construction workers) and the right to a job. (any employer)

    We will have a front row seat for the coming debacle in the Eurozone because of such hogwash as ‘positive rights’ and a ‘unified currency.’

    Mike, that is a great quote.

  • Porcell

    My father was fond of saying you had a right to be born and to die and that we needed to wake up and die right. Of course, he understood that we have a set of constitutional rights given to us through the founders, most of whom understood that they ultimately came from God.

    The right to health-care and housing, along with such baubles as “gay” rights are a self-serving fiction of the political left. Politicians who emphasize rights and slight duties and responsibilities do the country a great disservice.

  • Porcell

    My father was fond of saying you had a right to be born and to die and that we needed to wake up and die right. Of course, he understood that we have a set of constitutional rights given to us through the founders, most of whom understood that they ultimately came from God.

    The right to health-care and housing, along with such baubles as “gay” rights are a self-serving fiction of the political left. Politicians who emphasize rights and slight duties and responsibilities do the country a great disservice.

  • Rose

    Utahrainbow,
    Perhaps I am fortunate to be surrounded by good Christian men who do have an understanding of the integrity of their work. It’s exactly in the Fall that men were given the consequence of work. By embracing a high work ethic, men overcome their lower nature. But for women, it seems to be the wrong remedy, perhaps because it’s the wrong curse.

  • Rose

    Utahrainbow,
    Perhaps I am fortunate to be surrounded by good Christian men who do have an understanding of the integrity of their work. It’s exactly in the Fall that men were given the consequence of work. By embracing a high work ethic, men overcome their lower nature. But for women, it seems to be the wrong remedy, perhaps because it’s the wrong curse.


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