Ever since John Locke developed the theory of natural individual human rights, there has been an ongoing attempt to change his idea to something very different.
For Locke the natural rights all human beings have are basically prohibitions. They forbid people from intruding on other people--from killing, assaulting, kidnapping, robbing them, and so forth. In the field of political theory they are referred to as negative rights. They hold up a sign to all concerning invading people’s lives and spheres and insist: “Halt, you need permission to enter!”
This can be well appreciated when one considers that throughout much of history ordinary folks had been viewed as subjects, not sovereign citizens. A subject is one who must follow the dictates of some master or superior. Kings have subjects who must obey their will! Once this fiction is abandoned, it becomes clear that all adult human beings are independent agents, no one’s subject!
But of course many insist that such sovereignty is highly objectionable because it leaves it to the individual whether he or she will give support to others and their various projects. Involuntary servitude is ruled out if we are all sovereign citizens rather than subject to the will of a king, tsar, or ruler. Even the majority may not ignore this fact about us, so democracy is properly limited to some very few matters once the sovereignty of individuals is acknowledged.
But by introducing the idea of welfare or positive rights, we are back in the old system since a positive right imposes an enforceable obligation on one to provide others with goods and services, never mind what one chooses to do. Thus if people have a positive right to health care or insurance or education or housing or a job, they must be provided with this, just as when their right to life or liberty is recognized, they must not be interfered with.
One’s basic rights impose obligations on everyone not to violate them. But negative rights only impose an obligation to treat others without resorting to coercion, without using them against their will. Involuntary servitude counters this and sanctions violating such rights as to one’s life, liberty, property, etc., holding that we are born with enforceable obligations of various sort of services to others--God, the state, our neighbors, etc. Instead of seeing us all as free and independent persons, the positive rights doctrine re-affirms the ancient idea that we do not have a life of our own.
The more modern idea is that while we ought to be generous and charitable, this has to be something we choose! That is the only way our moral nature is protected and preserved, if the right things we ought to do are done voluntarily, not forcibly imposed by others.
The basic point here is that the doctrine of positive or welfare rights stands on its had John Locke’s insight about the status of an adult human being in a human community, an insight that had been growing in influence in America and the West until recently. But instead of relying on people’s good will and generosity to help out those in need of various goods and services, the positive or welfare rights doctrine reintroduces the old regime that people in society aren’t free agents but serfs. (Here is the main point of F. A. Hayek’s superb book, The Road to Serfdom [Routledge, 1944] in which he critiques the modern welfare state!)
March 20, 2013
We are delighted to present Lessons in Freedom, essays by Dr. Tibor Machan, for your pleasure.
Dr. Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University's Argyros School of B&E.