Sunday, October 12, 2014

Three Reasons Why There is No Such Thing as Positive Rights

1. Rights, by definition, are universal, meaning that everyone can exercise them, even simultaneously. For instance, everyone can simultaneously exercise one’s right to property without generating any necessary conflict of interests, let alone a logical contradiction. But since exercising a "positive right" means coercing another to provide one with a specific good or service, everyone attempting to exercise a "positive right" simultaneously results in no one being able to exercise it, since where everyone wants to take, there is no one left to take from.

2. Rights, being by definition universal, hold true regardless of time and place. For instance, the right to property was as valid in the early Neolithic as it is today. However, “positive rights” are often “rights” to goods and services whose wide availability is a recent phenomenon. It would be preposterous to claim that, say, the “right” to education held true in the early Neolithic, since education in the modern sense of the term did not exist at that time. This indicates that this and other recently invented “rights” are not genuine rights, but modern privileges.

3. Genuine rights cannot clash. For instance, exercising one’s right to property does not violate any right of anyone else. On the contrary, since exercising a "positive right" means coercing another to provide one with a specific good or service, it necessarily violates another’s right to liberty and property, and thus necessarily generates a clash of rights. This indicates that only one of these rights – the one that can be exercised without generating a necessary conflict of interests – is a genuine right rather than a disguised privilege.


  1. There are neither "positive rights", nor "negative rights". What you call a "right" is in fact a freedom. By historical accident we call a liberty to posses property "rights".

    None explained this notions' melange better than Anthony de Jasay:
    "A freedom is a relation between one person and a set of acts. The person is presumed to be free to perform any act in the set that does not breach the rules against torts (offences against person and property) and (a less stringent requirement) the rules of civility. A substantial obstruction of freedom (e.g., gagging or threatening to hit a person to stop him from speaking freely) is a tort or an incivility. As such, it is wrong. To say that a person has a "right to a freedom" is tantamount to saying that he has a right not to be wronged—a redundant and silly proposition. It also implies that he would not have this freedom if he had not somehow obtained a right to it—an implication that is at the source of much false theorizing. You do not need a right to move if your moves stay within the rules—this indeed is what it means to have rules.

    In contrast to a freedom, a right is a relation between two persons, the right-holder and the obligor, and an act the obligor must perform at the rightholder's bidding. A right may be created by contract in which the obligor, in exchange for a consideration, surrenders his freedom to perform (or forbear from performing) some set of acts as he pleases, and agrees to perform (or forbear from performing) it as required by the rightholder. Here, both parties enter voluntarily into the right/obligation relation. However, a right may also be created by some authority, such as the government acting on behalf of "society", conferring it upon rightholders and imposing the corresponding obligation on obligors of its own choosing. The conferring of welfare rights on some and the imposition of the corresponding taxes on others is a mundane example. The granting of civil rights to some minority and the imposition of the appropriate conduct on the rest is a perhaps less mundane one. The notion of "property rights" as used in current economic theory, conjures up the fiction that property is conferred by "society" upon the proprietors and the corresponding obligation to respect it is imposed by "society" on everybody. (It is worth noting that respect for property is part of the rules against torts. Violating property is a wrong that must simply not be done; and this interdiction is enforced by various private or public ways and means of enforcement ranging from reciprocity and retaliation to law courts and a police force. A separate obligation to respect or protect property, a corollary of the supposed "right to private property", is double-counting. Like any other double-counting, it obscures the view of what is owned and what is owed.)"

  2. "Consider two prototypes of relations between persons and acts. In the first prototype, a person can choose to perform a certain act because the act is feasible for him, and is not a wrong (i.e. is not made inadmissible by convention). In the second, a person can choose to require another person to perform a certain act whereupon the other person is obliged to perform it.
    The first is a prototype of a freedom, the second the prototype of a right. It is prima facie strange that the two should be confused and that both should sometimes be denoted by the same word."