Moving beyond the basic nature of human beings is the extension of rights that we ascribe to them, and the nature of those rights depends greatly on or view of the relationship of one man to another, and in a larger sense, one man to all men (or man to society). As an American, the sensibility of rights is something that is nearly bred into us, a persistent word found in countless messages about our country, our history, and our neighbors that we have heard since birth. Despite the prevalence of the word, the concepts that back it have a highly varied set of parameters and assumptions. At the heart of these is the separation between rights viewed negatively, that is, rights that are only bounded by another individual’s infringement upon them, and rights viewed positively, that is, rights that are bounded by a person’s lack of something. With little congregation are the ideas about whence these rights originate; are they bequeathed by God unto all individuals, are they apportioned out by government or nationality, or are they merely illusory? Finally, the possessor of rights must be defined; is it the individual or the collective?
II. Negative and Positive Rights
The divide between the concept of negative and positive rights is where the greatest points of conflict arise in modern political discourse, yet the various perspectives tend to take their vision of rights to be the default and take primacy, and little words are spend addressing their own or their opponents particular view of human rights.
A. Negative Rights
Negative rights, as stated before, are those whose existence is persistent and bequeathed by no other person directly, but inherit in their being as a human. These are encapsulated in the declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These rights are static; they are given by the absolute power of the universe, and are only threatened by other’s impediments.
In the negative sense, all rights are those that involve theft or interference. The right of possession is always property, the violation always theft. If you take somebody’s property without them giving it to you (either for trade or otherwise), that is theft. If you kill someone, you are stealing their life. If you rape (a word itself whose ancient meaning is synonymous with theft) someone, you are stealing their body. When you imprison a man, enslave him, or coerce the use of his property you are interfering with his self-interested pursuits; you are depriving him of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The only question that arises within this framework is what do about conflicts of rights. To quote Milton Friedman during the Free to Choose specials, “The right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” Man’s rights are limited only by the need to respect those of others. His right to travel or speak is limited by another’s right to control his property, his right to armament only limited by his refusal to use such coercively or to kill, his right to property limited by another’s willingness to trade with him. Inevitably, rights conflict, and the use of government, courts, and contracts is an attempt to balance and solve these conflicts as fairly as possible. For instance, is a person’s right to the property of their body greater than an unborn child’s right to live? Undoubtedly these are not easy questions to answer, and furthermore, seem subject to the whims of the society and its values, whether good or bad.
The relationship between property and interference is also a negative one. No individual has a right to have an object, but everyone has a right to get an object; to do whatever they can to acquire that object, as long as those actions don’t in turn violate another’s rights. As a practical application, let’s say somebody wished to have an expensive automobile, such as a Ferrari. The first part of their property right, which is the right to have, exists only after they have purchased it. The other half of their property right, which is the right to acquire, exist as they work and save the income from their economic production.
B. Positive Rights
One might be inclined to believe that the founders of the United States were primarily believers in negative rights, and for many instances they would be correct, especially concerning the Bill of Rights, but many parts of the constitution seem to invoke rights beyond merely the non-interference principle. The mandate for education prior to the age of sixteen and the right to trial by jury seem to be a prelude to ideas that would take on great political importance in the first half of the twentieth century, and these are essentially concepts of Positive rights.
Positive rights involve the right to things, statuses, or other states of living that are not conditions of merely being alive, but are instead prerequisites, either necessities for life or necessities for quality of life. An extensive list of these can be found in the Second Bill of Rights proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1944 “State of the Union” address. In it he postulated that every individual had a right to a particular wage (a “living wage,” as opposed to a wage determined by the value their employer assigns to their labor), housing, medicine, education, and “Social Security” (which could mean either the right to retire or the right to a “Safety net”- an ability to not face destitution during unfortunate circumstances).
Essentially, the negative rights talked about above become positive rights when viewed through the lens of necessity. The right to life also includes the right to necessities that are prerequisites for life: housing, medicine, and food. The right to property conversely extends first to those things which are prerequisites to life, and things that are beyond that may be tolerated, but not protected. Whereas the negative right to life is a property right, the right to own and do as you wish with your own life, the positive right to life is just that- a right to be alive no matter what. The moral imperative therefore is to support these rights directly, through political and personal action, and defense of these rights occurs through action, not a lack thereof.
Conflicts of rights within a positive framework are rarely clashes of individual will or interests, but instead questions of degree. A person’s right to a minimum quality of life is superior to a person’s right to property beyond such, or as an extension, his right to control the means and manner of his property trade. Thus the wishes of few men must be subservient to the needs of the many, and in deciding conflicts, that which is most egalitarian is viewed as the most prudent solution.
Because these rights involve material things to different degrees, it becomes necessary to acknowledge that some things are not necessities of life and some things are. People do not have rights to things insofar as they possess them, but are only entitled to them based on their need. This posits that while large degrees of wealth are not morally exclusive to human rights, they become morally tolerable only if they do not come at the expense of the rights of others, i.e. the things of their necessity. If we use the above example of the expensive Ferrari automobile, the man who desires it has neither the right to own it, as it is not a necessity, nor a right to acquire it, as he is only entitled to receive what is materially necessary for his existence. If he does possess it, it is at best a privilege, not a right.
C. The Conflict Between Concepts
In the modern political environment, with its competing interests and visions, it is inevitable that the competing concepts of rights enter the arena of ideas, coloring with their respective tints both the moral and pragmatic discussions of the day. To say that the these concepts fall squarely within one or the other of the modern American political parties is not correct; instead each mixes pieces of the two when building a viable constituency to win elections.
The American Democratic Party tends to view most economic discussions through a positive lens, concerning their social policies with the meeting of essential needs of all, and viewing the loss of income or wealth that certain people will suffer as a justifiable trade-off, as the piece taken is not essential to life or happiness. The discussions therefore tend to focus, as stated above, on degrees rather than absolutes. A man need not build a ten million dollar home when that money could be used to provide housing for many more individuals. To quote the ever logical Spock in The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” The party that created Social Security, housing projects, and food stamps has gone on to argue for rights to medicine.
Conversely, the democratic party has stood behind causes and ideas that are primarily about negative rights, though sometimes they are given pragmatic explanations of degree. The property right of abortion, the travel rights of immigrants, and more recently rights involving gay marriage (though the right to a government license could be argued as positive, the arguments presented by the party are mostly of a negative persuasion), have all been important to various parts of their constituency. These particular interests, representing very different visions, are nevertheless able to coexist, however incoherent the partnership may seem.
The American Republican Party tends to view the majority of issues through a negative lens, refusing the moral justification of degree in most economic matters, much less willing to accept theft as a justifiable trade-off for any policy, however beneficial it may seem. They support the negative right of armament as an extension of the right to life, viewing the defense of life as a right. Pragmatists exist on both sides of the Isle, but the argument for rights to weaponry lies almost exclusively with the Republicans.
Strangely, negative rights are conspicuously absent from many parts of the republican platform, becoming the defender of negative rights only in select areas. Free speech does not extend to pornography, the right to self-property does not extend to putting drugs in one’s self, and freedom from interference in religion seems to only apply to those of the Christian faith. The rights of life and liberty of foreigners are quickly sub-served during war to meet the necessity of national defense. Again, there is an inconsistency of vision as a result of the building of coalitions, teaming freedom-loving gun enthusiasts up with bible reading teetotalers in order to garner a scant minority in elections.
At the end of this we may ask, who wins? The answer is unequivocally those in favor of positive rights. This is not a result of weakness on the part of those arguing for negative rights, or the particular strength of their opposition, but in the nature of politics. This is partly because politicians always want to be viewed as “doing something,” as opposed to doing nothing, but also because of how the compromise between these positions works. When compromising between two positions, one which wishes a total absence of the positive right and one which wishes total dedication to the positive right, the compromise always favors the positive. For those who are championing causes of equality and necessity, a compromise (which results in a better serving of rights) is always better than nothing, while for those on the other side a compromise (which results in a violation of rights) is always worse than nothing. Those who believe in absolute negative rights will always see them slowly stripped away.