The United States has been bitterly divided for quite some time now, with conservatives and progressives fighting it out all across the political domain. The prize is nothing less than the future of the country and the very values which underpin it. While we as citizens might prefer a more pragmatic approach to politics, where workable solutions trump ideological commitments, considering the banter between pundits on 24 hour news shows, sometimes it seems the two sides don’t even speak the same language. In fact, their most basic premises about the fundamental role of government seem to be wholly incompatible. This may seem like little more than stubborn partisanship, but the reality goes much deeper and it has more to do with philosophy than politics. The difference between conservatives and progressives is sometimes simply a matter of negative and positive rights.
What are negative and positive rights?
While the two terms are relatively new in terms of the long discourse of rights, they are useful in terms of distinguishing the two main ways in which we can view the state. Negative rights refer to those fundamental human rights which the government must not infringe upon. They are “negative” because the government cannot interfere with them except in cases where the citizen has infringed upon the rights of others. For example, the first amendment does not exist to make it easier for the citizen to express various rights related to speech, assembly and religious belief, but rather makes it very hard for the government to interfere with them, thus the line “Congress shall make no law…” Essentially, the citizen already holds these rights as a free human being, and the government merely refrains from infringing upon them. The bill of rights and virtually all the amendments to the constitution refer to negative rights and create protections against government infringing upon them.
In terms of positive rights, the idea is not to restrict, but rather to empower and compel the government to act in various ways to promote the welfare of the citizenry. For example, there is the idea that citizens have a right to a job, a living wage, and decent working conditions. Therefore, the government is compelled to pass legislation with the aim of establishing full employment, a minimum wage, and various benefits for workers. Other positive rights include the right to health-care, food, and to be taken care of in old age. These are matters related to the dignity of a human being, to his or her ability to flourish and live a life that is not unduly cruel or harsh.
Issues and Controversies
One of the problems with positive rights though, which conservatives and libertarians tend to point out, is that in order for them to mean anything in practice, someone else will inherently have to provide the means by which they are given. For example, if you have the right to health-care, then a doctor or nurse will have to at some point, render that care. Either the medical practitioner will have to be paid for his or her rendering of care, or he or she will have to be compelled to render it. This is manifestly different from a negative right such as the right to be free from unwarranted search and seizure, where all that is needed for the right to be in effect, is for the government not to search you without a warrant.
Progressives may argue though, that all rights, even negative ones, are predicated on someone performing a service to the state in order to guarantee it. For example, without police and the courts to protect freedom of speech, there would be nothing to stop say a local restaurant owner from hiring a couple of thugs to silence a food critic that wrote a bad review of the restaurant. Even though the government does not have to really do anything to respect the negative rights of the citizenry, it does need to at the very least, raise an army, create a police force, and establish a judiciary to make sure private individuals and corporations do not infringe upon the basic rights of others.
From a social contract point of view, all government is established in order to save people from having to protect each and every right themselves through their own wills, wills that if met with superior force, would likely be unable to stop private assaults upon their liberty. Yet it is plausible that in extending this social contract beyond the most basic of rights, we run into complications that are not easy to resolve.
For example, we may ask, where do positive rights end? With negative rights, we know that as long as the government does not infringe in certain areas of the lives of its citizens and respects their right not to be subject to investigation or incarceration without due process, things are on the right track. With positive rights, things are less clear because one can always make a claim for a positive good that can enrich the lives of individuals. For example, everyone’s life would probably be better off with broadband internet access, but how should the government accomplish this? Is providing it in public libraries enough, or does broadband need to be in every home? Of course with this it may be a moot point, because technology costs have come down enough to make slow, dial-up internet almost completely extinct anyway. Yet the essence of the problem remains, how much is the government obligated to provide positive rights and how many positive rights can really be claimed?
This is where we get into the heart of political debates about entitlements, health-care, education, and other issues. Conservatives and libertarians often fall on the side that is against positive rights, at least in their rhetoric (few conservative political leaders actually support cutting Medicare and social security for example), while liberals and progressives tend to favor more positive rights, even if this leads to more government spending and the need for greater taxation. Interestingly, both of those positions, if not properly balanced, can lead to long term problems with the economy and the stability of the nation, either through excessive debt and regulation, or crumbling infrastructure and substandard education for youth.
Reconciling Negative and Positive Rights
Nearly all Americans are in favor of protecting people’s rights, but where they differ is in how they conceive of those rights. For those concerned about crushing poverty, the right to assembly means little if a person is working three jobs, has two kids, and has no time to protest much of anything. Part of the problem perhaps, is that the very concept of positive and negative rights is problematic.
When we speak of a right to a job and a right to education, we are not talking about the same thing as the right to life, or the right to follow one’s conscience. In fact, we are not really talking about rights at all, but rather about the responsibility of government to provide for the common good, and of the privileges that come with being a citizen in a highly developed and wealthy nation. If we consider the issues facing the country in this light, then perhaps we can move beyond the entrenched politics and find some real solutions.
For example, entitlements must obviously be paid for by taxation, and so they have to be tied to actual revenue and the size of the economy. It does not make sense to expand privileges beyond our means to pay for such expansion, but if we can pay for it, then why should we as a rich nation be opposed to things like a first class education, transportation, health-care and pension system?
So long as we do not drift into nanny state totalitarianism, we should be open to the idea of making sure that all citizens have at least a basic standard of living. But as long as we do not regard them as essential rights that absolutely have to be provided no matter what, we will have the flexibility to decide what privileges we can afford and which ones will have to wait until revenue can be raised
In order for us to have true liberty and true progress though, conservatives need to accept that there is a role for the state to play in improving the common lot of the people, while liberals need to accept that entitlements and other benefits need to be tied to an ability to pay for them and not just compassion for the downtrodden. We might say then, that negative rights are about respect, and positive rights are about compassion, with each motivation being vital for a society that is both free and just.