Why Positive Rights Are Not Rights

by | Aug 8, 2010

Why Positive Rights Are Not Rights There presently exists a great delusion regarding the subject of rights. The great strides regarding natural rights that have been achieved by the likes of Locke have now been cast aside, in a modern era of entitlement; in an era, indeed, of childish unrealism, and certainly an era of […]

Why Positive Rights Are Not Rights

There presently exists a great delusion regarding the subject of rights. The great strides regarding natural rights that have been achieved by the likes of Locke have now been cast aside, in a modern era of entitlement; in an era, indeed, of childish unrealism, and certainly an era of delusion and ignorance. Man has thrown away the idea of inherent rights in order to replace it with the insidious concept that government is that which may grant rights, and in so doing, man has made a grevious mistake, because after all, “He who giveth, may taketh away”.

Now one could easily declare that all things, including rights, are mere constructs of the mind that are meaningless in the objective sense. And such a statement may be true, but if this is the attitude we are to take, then why bother with anything at all? Yes, perhaps all things, including rights, are subjective, but that is no reason to avoid their discussion. And surely rights, of all things, are important to discuss. And while it may be that the premise for all rights is subjective, there is certainly an ability for man, as a rational being, to use logic after the given and come up with the appropriate rights that follow. And this given that we will use must be the principle of self-ownership.

Self-ownership is the guiding principle behind all natural rights. It is the basic premise from which natural rights build up, and to deny self-ownership is to advocate slavery, or at least to say that slavery is acceptable. And surely, this is not the case; thus it follows that all individuals own themselves. Now we can accept this as a given, or we may proceed to question why it is a given and attempt to find proof. Indeed, “proof” for this sort of thing is difficult to come by, because it is a philosophical concept that cannot be proven. However, logic may be used, and conventional morality declares slavery immoral anyway, and hopefully, not too many people do believe that slavery is anything but immoral. It may or may not be a subjective given, but if liberty must be the outcome, then self-ownership must be the guiding principle.

Therefore we must accept that self-ownership is a valid and moral principle, and from this guiding principle, our natural rights arise. Our natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and our natural rights, therefore, to free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and freedom of action, in so far as we do not violate the rights of others. Because self-ownership is the principle, and an individual has natural rights, we are able to conclude that any action which violates the rights of others is not a moral action; in this way we are able to determine right from wrong. Thus murder is wrong, because you violate the natural rights of another human being in killing them; you violate their right to life.

Why does the right to life arise from the principle of self-ownership? The answer is simple, but first, it requires an understanding of what the right to life actually means. The right to life means that your life is your own possession, and that therefore, no man may take your life away from you (it cannot mean, however, that you have the right to the necessities of life, for reasons that shall be revealed later on). This is the sum of your right to life; and it follows that you have a right to life because you own yourself, and as your own property, only you have the authority to end your own life. No other man owns your life in order to take it away from you. Since you have self-ownership, you have the authority over yourself, including over your life, and speech and action, in so far as you do not infringe upon the authority of other individuals over their person. It is truly that simple. How can another man take your life when he does not own it? He cannot, without violating your rights. As a conscious, self-aware entity, you own your own mind and person, and by the virtue of that ownership, only you have the authority over your life.

Now by the virtue of owning your self, you own your labor, and the fruits of your labor; if another human being owned your labor, then you are a slave, and you do not own yourself, for you have no choice in the matter of your own work and actions. Therefore it must follow that you own your labor, and the fruits of your labor are your property.

Now we must determine the conditions that make a right legitimate. The very first question to ask, then, is this: are rights given, or are they inherent? Now since we have established self-ownership, it must follow that rights are inherent. There is no other conclusion to be made without violating self-ownership. If rights are given to you, then they are privileges, as they may be taken away; if rights are given to you, then another human being has the authority over your life as to determine your own rights. This explicitly shows that, if rights are given, men are slaves. Of course, if all men are slaves, we must ask, who is the slave-owner? There can be no answer, and there is no logic with the premise “rights are given”, so it must follow, by the most simple logic, that rights are inherent. This is the only conclusion consistent with the principle of self-ownership. And one may say “…oh, but didn’t the government give women and slaves rights?”. And the answer is no. Government recognized the inherent natural rights of women and slaves; it did not magically endow upon them “more” humanity, and suddenly bestow rights. Government may not give rights; it can only protect them, or violate them. Rights must be inherent, if we are to support the principle of self-ownership.

Therefore we have established the first condition of a right: all rights are inherent, and are not given or taken.

Now this one condition alone is argument enough against positive rights and in favor of negative rights, but for the sake of the argument, more conditions can be delineated.

We have already determined that man, as a self-owned being, has the rights to everything in so far as he does not violate the rights of others, as a virtue of his authority over himself (self-ownership). As such, man has the right to speak and think freely, and to act freely (without violating the rights of others, since that would violate self-ownership), and to acquire property as the fruit of his labor, which he owns. The individual alone may determine what the individual will do, again, in so far as he does not violate the rights of others. This, then, is a necessary condition for a right, for nothing may be a right which imposes obligations onto others. This is what separates the right to think and speak freely, which requires nothing from others, and the right to food, which requires an entitlement to the labor of others and obligates them to produce regardless of their personal choice (if they refuse to, they deny you your “rights”). Furthermore, it logically follows that not only must they produce against their will, but they must do so free of charge; if you pay them, you are paying for a right, and if you pay for a right then it is not a right as it is based upon the condition of payment. Furthermore, the final nail in the coffin is this: we have already established that anything which must be given by others is not a right, for all rights are inherent; thus food, by default, may not be considered a right, and neither can health care or housing or any sort of thing which depends upon production. Rights to goods and services necessarily impose obligations onto others to produce, free of charge, against their will; and this is slavery. And your rights end when they violate the rights of others. If you have the right to the labor of others and thus own others, you are violating their self-ownership.

Therefore we have established the second condition of a right: rights must not impose obligations onto others, or require any sort of action on their part, because to require such things violates their rights.

Now we must determine the final, and third, condition that is relevant to the subject of rights, and that is, are rights subject to scarcity? It does not follow that anything which may be rationed, and may be in overabundance or in short supply, should be a right. If rights are rights, all individuals must have them regardless, and thus rationing of rights is simply not possible. It cannot be done, for a right, by its very nature, is not something subject to scarcity in order to be rationed in the first place. And surely, payment for a right is unfair; one shouldn’t have to pay for one’s rights, either directly or through tax dollars. Thus a right must transcend material goods and services and must be free; otherwise, it is either not a right, or you are proposing that rights may be rationed, and that is a self-evidently absurd proposal.

Therefore we have established the third condition of a right: rights must not be dependent upon production, and must not be subject to scarcity.

In reality, all of these conditions only support the others; for instance, to say that rights are inherent already implies that they are not subject to scarcity, and require no input from others. However, it is still important to delineate every condition, in order that no collectivist can still argue for positive rights. Negative rights are inherent, natural rights; and real liberty requires only that nobody else violate your rights, and that you “live and let live”. This is the logical outcome of the principle of self-ownership.

Positive rights, on the other hand, are not rights at all. Let us use the example of food, although you may substitute any other good or service you deem necessary; anybody who argues that positive rights are legitimate rights must demonstrate

a) food is inherent (otherwise you violate the self-ownership principle)
b) food requires nothing from others (if it does, you violate their rights by obligating them to work against their will free of charge)
c) food is not subject to scarcity (otherwise your “rights” may be rationed, and this is self-evidently absurd)

All proper rights are inherent, and therefore require nothing from others and are not subject to scarcity. Self-ownership, or the authority over yourself as your own property, allows us to figure out what our natural rights are, which no legal right may supercede without violating. Legal rights must protect natural rights, for natural rights must be the moral principles which allow us to differentiate between right and wrong. “Live and let live”.

Now, there are some who will point to the Second Amendment and say “But, guns are scarce and must be produced, and aren’t inherent”. This is flawed thinking: the Second Amendment is the right to bear arms. Bearing is an action. The Second Amendment does not guarantee you a gun at no cost as a birthright; it simply allows you to bear a weapon if you so choose.

While the Second Amendment is proper and important, it is questionable whether or not it is necessary. Every individual has the right to acquire property in general, and guns are property; thus, it follows that every individual has the right to own a gun. The distinction for firearms is arbitrary, and the general “right to acquire property” is enough.

In conclusion, rights must be those things which are yours by birth; inherent, and not given; liberty is not given. Liberty arises from the respect of your natural rights, and your natural rights arise from self-ownership. Positive rights are not rights at all, as they are not inherent, and do not respect the rights of others. Therefore, by logic, positive rights cannot be rights. One may argue in the favor of public services, but to call them “rights” is to cross the line.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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