(Thanks To FEE – Foundation For Economic Education)
You have a right to:
- Your life (unless compromised by taking or attempting to take that of another person without a self-defense justification);
- Your thoughts;
- Your speech (which is really a verbal or written expression of #2) so long as you don’t steal it from another without permission or credit;
- Material property you were freely given, that you created yourself, or that you freely traded for;
- Raise and educate your children as you see fit;
- Live in peace and freedom so long as you do not threaten the peace and freedom of others.
You do not have a right to:
- High-speed broadband Internet access;
- Cheeseburgers, cheap wine (or even expensive wine, for that matter), or an iPhone;
- Somebody else’s house, car, boat, income, business, or bank account;
- The labor of another person you’ve not freely contracted with (you can’t enslave somebody, in other words);
- Medical care from a witch doctor or a skilled surgeon or anybody in between;
- Taxpayer-funded (i.e., coercively-appropriated) child daycare, college education, contraceptives, colonoscopies, or sports stadiums;
- Anything that’s not yours, even though you really want it and think you’re entitled to it;
- Conscript other people’s children into schools you think they should attend;
- Free stuff in general, unless the rightful owner chooses to offer it;
- Anything a politician flattered you with by claiming you have a right to it.
Of course, gray areas and reasonable qualifications exist. For example, while I believe you do have a right to raise and educate your own children as you see fit, abuse and neglect are not defensible. But let’s keep our eyes on the big picture, the broad principles here.
Positive vs. Negative Rights
Now, look at those two lists again, carefully. How does the nature of the first list contrast with the nature of the second?
Answer: In the case of the first list, nothing is required of other people except that they leave you alone. For you to have a right to something in the second list, however, requires that other people be compelled to provide that something to you. That’s a monumental difference!
The first list comprises what are often called both “natural rights” and “negative rights”—natural because they derive from our essential nature as unique, sensate individuals and negative because they don’t impose obligations on others beyond a commitment to not violate them. The items in the second are called “positive rights” because others must give them to you or be coerced into doing so if they decline.
The late Tibor Machan, who wrote many articles for FEE in the 1970s and 1980s, elaborated on this distinction in “The Perils of Positive Rights”:
“Positive rights” trump freedom. According to this doctrine, human beings by nature owe, as a matter of enforceable obligation, part or even all of their lives to other persons. Generosity and charity thus cannot be left to individual conscience. If people have such positive rights, no one can be justified in refusing service to others; one may be conscripted to serve regardless of one’s own choices and goals.
If positive rights are valid, then negative rights cannot be, for the two are mutually contradictory.
The existence of “negative rights,” wrote Machan, “means that no one ought to enslave another, coerce another, or deprive another of his property; and that each of us may properly resist such conduct when others engage in it.”
So while I believe neither you nor I have a right to any of those disparate things in the second list, I hasten to add that we certainly have the right to seek them, to create them, to receive them as gifts from willing benefactors, or to trade for them. We just don’t have a right to compel anyone to give them to us or pay for them. If any of us did, then why wouldn’t another individual have a similar right to take them from us?
The Constitution’s Role in Rights
What about “constitutional rights,” a phrase we hear from people on all sides of the political spectrum? I like what Michael Badnarik said about them in his 2004 book, Good to be King:
People are usually surprised to discover that I hate the phrase “constitutional rights.” I hate the phrase because it is terribly misleading. Most of the people who say it or hear it have the impression that the Constitution “grants” them their rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strictly speaking, it is the Bill of Rights that enumerates our rights, but none of our founding documents bestow anything on you at all […] The government can burn the Constitution and shred the Bill of Rights, but those actions wouldn’t have the slightest effect on the rights you’ve always had.
If you’re motivated to explore further the nature, origin, meaning, and extent of rights, then you’re on the right website. Over decades, FEE has published many articles by numerous authors on just this matter. I close with a recommendation of 10 of the best:
Let’s Think Clearly about “Rights” by Jeffrey Harding
Human Rights are Property Rights by Murray N. Rothbard
Of Rights: Natural and Arbitrary by Clarence Carson
Is Health Care a Human Right? by Trevor Burrus
No Rights Without Property Rights by Frank Chodorov
How FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights Changed American Politics by Burton W. Folsom
Rights by Henry Hazlitt
Freedom or Free-for-All? by Lawrence W. Reed
When Wishes Become Rights by Leonard E. Read
Rights Vs. Entitlements by Steven Yates
Many Links Below – Become Informed!
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