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
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.