“Rights” Properly Understood

Words matter, perhaps now more than ever.

The rate at which our friends on the left change the definition of words seems to increase by the month.  Not long ago, it seemed we all knew the definition of racism, little did we know.

I bit further back in time (but not much), it seemed we all knew what was meant by “rights.”  When I went to public school, U.S. History was a required course, and rights were understood as those specifically protected by the Constitution.  But I do not recall any discussion of what the term “rights” specifically meant.

Now, it seems, we must dive into the precise definition of rights.  Now we have prominent public figures insisting on a right to education, a right to housing, a right to a basic income, a right to healthcare, and innumerable other “rights.”  Those of us surprised at all these new rights may also be surprised to find out that the discussion of how a right is defined is quite old.

What we conservatives think of as rights would be more accurately called “negative rights.”  This would apply for example to the First Amendment.  The right to free speech does not require any positive action on the part of anyone, all that is expected is to leave the speaker alone – let them speak.  All that is required of others, in the case of a negative right, is simply for them to not interfere.

What our friends on the left think of when they talk of a right to healthcare (for example) would be more accurately called a “positive right.”  It is a “positive” right because it demands a positive action from someone else.  Someone, under this understanding, is compelled to provide that healthcare.

Virtually every right protected under the Constitution is a negative right.  All the rest of us have to do to uphold those rights is to refrain from interfering with them.  Let people speak, let them defend themselves, do not compel them to testify against themselves, etc.  I will grant that there is some argument that some Constitutional rights might be considered positive in some ways.  For example, to ensure a fair and speedy trial by a jury of peers, someone is compelled to put the necessary infrastructure in place to allow this to happen (there must be a court, a courthouse, attorneys, judges, and jurors).  But for the most part, Constitutional rights are negative rights.

It is easy, in this current environment of upside-down rhetoric, to confuse positive and negative rights.  I believe the Second Amendment protects my right to own, carry, and use a firearm.  I view this as a negative right – all that is required is that no one interferes with my right.  It does not mean that anyone is compelled to provide me with a firearm or ammunition, that would be a positive right.

When public figures champion ideas like “a right to healthcare” or “a right to housing” I have to assume they are referring to positive rights.  In the negative sense, those rights already exist.  We do not have laws barring people from visiting their doctors or hospitals, or from buying a house or renting an apartment.  No, it seems clear they refer to these in the positive sense – that someone should be compelled to provide these things.

The trouble with positive rights is that they compromise the rights of others.  This leads to a paradox.  What happens, for example, if healthcare is deemed a positive right?  Arguably, the government would be compelled to enforce this right.  The government would conceivably pay for the healthcare – as is already commonly done in many cases.  But what if there were a shortage of doctors?  Would the government then conscript students into medical school and compel them to become doctors?  After all, we are talking about a “right” here – and the sole purpose of government is to secure rights.  And what then do we say about the rights of those conscripted students?  What of the rights of the taxpayers that fund this?  What kind of sweeping coercive powers would the government need to secure such rights?

The notion of positive rights is nearly always associated with a collective.  As I’ve written before, the idea of collective rights can not coexist with individual rights.  Collective rights, and positive rights, can only come to be at the expense of individual rights.  We can have collective wants and even collective needs such as national security.  But they are just that – wants and needs, not rights.

The only legitimate use of the term “right” is in the negative sense.  The right not to be interfered with.





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