Monday, July 06, 2009

Negative and Positive Rights

We don’t use the word rights all that accurately in everyday speech. We move from “it would be nice if…” to “everyone should have…” to “everyone has a right to…” without checking our meanings along the way. Having a right to something means that someone, somewhere is obliged to give it to you. This is why historically, rights have been negative :freedom of speech, freedom of religion. The “something” that others are obliged to give you is to leave you alone, to not interfere with your freedom of action. This leads to a concept of government which strives to
protect rights that you already inalienably have rather than a government which extends rights to you from its marvelous bounty of kindness. No one is obligated to give you oxygen, but as no one is allowed to interfere with your breathing, it seems to be the same thing at first glance.

You have the right to remain silent. But when you have the right to an attorney, it means you have the right to call one, or take the one the government gives you if you are accused of certain crimes. You don’t have a right to an attorney in the sense that society has to provide you one to
sue your ex-wife, or form a corporation.

So also with societal rights. We have rights of equal access that we consider inalienable (though societies have alienated people from all rights in many times and places). We have as much right as any other person to use public parks, to sue in court, to vote, or buy a car –
neither more nor less than any other individual. This is not so much a right to be left alone as a right to be treated the same. We might not have an inalienable right to an education perhaps, but once a system of universal education is in place, we all have equal rights to use it. This
has been the heart of anti-discrimination and civil rights law. I may not be entitled to a job, but I have as much right as anyone to apply and be judged on merit. My religion, my color, or my sex should not enter into it. The state may not be obligated to provide anyone with food, but once
food stamps are in place, A has the same right to them as B.

This idea of rights seems very simple, but it’s already quite messy, even before we try to add in anything else. Imagine if there were a growing shortage of oxygen. All of a sudden the distinction between no one being obligated to give you oxygen and no one being allowed to interfere with your breathing, which seemed trivial a moment ago, is now uncomfortably
large. What if the shortage is caused by a manufacturing process that uses huge amounts of oxygen? Does that manufacturer have a “right” to use it? We move quickly into the concept of no more than your share of the oxygen. But what is my “share” based on? What I need to live? But what if there are too many of us?

If this oxygen example seems far-fetched, consider that the above is exactly what is happening with fresh water. Even basic rights are difficult to guarantee.

What should we make, then, of the fondness for Democrats to speak of a right to decent housing, a right to health care? Where are the line crossings from “it would be nice if…” to “everyone should have…” to “everyone has a right to…” Society might choose to provide these things,
and if to others, then so to you. Those are rights of consent, not natural rights. But where does the obligation of society to do so come from? Who sez?

It is presented as a matter of conscience, a moral obligation for society to provide. Hence the idea that you are immoral or have no conscience if you don’t want to provide it. But there isn’t much logical foundation for that – it’s a feeling people have about Niceness.

I have bypassed entirely any discussion of the wisdom or providing food, education, and insurance, or the specifically Christian obligation we might individually have to the poor. Those are worthy topics, but not this topic.

I have heard too many times that people are ashamed or embarrassed to live in a country that doesn’t provide x, y, or z for people – these days, it’s health insurance. We should provide those, they say. Who’s we in that sentence? That is profoundly self-righteous, but of course it is rude to point that out. Worse than rude. You are seen as a hostile, mean, angry
person if you point out that obvious fact.


karrde said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karrde said...

Back to the point of your post:

When constructed as a right, health care is a strange right indeed. Where does health care shade from life-saving to life-enhancing?

What about housing? If I can rent a house, is that good enough?

Is it a right to affordable housing, or a right to purchase/rent what housing I can afford, without the intervention of governmental third parties?

ELC said...

I think it can be said that, in America, citizens do have a right to decent housing and a right to health care: the government has no authority to prevent citizens from acquiring decent housing and health care.

Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

I was reminded of the difference between men and women when they get sick. Men want to be left alone and women want someone to actively care for them.

Sam L. said...

One of the occasional tropes in science fiction is the "right to oxygen". This is expressed by newbies on moons, space stations, planets without breathable air--Why should I have to pay for air to breathe? Some just can't or won't understand that this is a case in which air is a product which costs money to make, and is a scarce resource.

Dubbahdee said...

These distinctions, these discussion, are at the heart of our recent political discussion -- that is to say, our discussion of how to live in the polis, the city, the community. I appreciate your attempt to draw some shades of distinction. They are useful. The nation (the people, the press, the government) need to draw these terms out onto the table and have a frank and open discussion of their meaning. If we do not reach some kind of consensus on their meaning then we may be doomed to lurch randomly into the future, launching rhetorical rockets that simply fly past their marks to explode goodness knows where and to what effect.
I have mentioned before that alongside this discussion we (the nation) ought also to discuss simple ROI issues involved in these questions of rights. Something may not be a "right" when properly considered, but it may still be valuable and useful to grant the privilege as a simple matter of improving the economic and social situation of everyone.

@nooil4pacifists said...