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What is a Right?

What is a Right?

What is a Right?

One common talking point in support of socialism is that it protects people’s rights.

The story goes something like this: 

Under free-market capitalism, whoever has the most money has the most power, and the way to get money and power is by taking advantage of others. The “haves” achieve success at the expense of the “have nots,” and the solution to this is (so the myth goes) passing laws to ensure equal distribution of resources so that everyone’s needs are taken care of. We’re told that this second system, called socialism, is not just more compassionate, but also more just. That people have a right to things like healthcare, a nice place to live, and a good education.

And while we certainly should strive to allow everyone access to those things, if we’re going to call anything a right, we first need to answer the question; what is a right? Only then can we determine who has a right to what, and how best to ensure those rights are honored. Answering these questions is the first step, not only to being morally and intellectually consistent in the public square, but also to instituting effective and just policies.

So let’s start with this: What is a right?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a right is “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” Of course, when we speak of legal rights, we’re referring to the right to property or to a behavior without government interference. Usually when we talk about rights, we’re referring to something called a negative right. Freedom of assembly, for example, is a negative right. This means that, while I have a right to gather with other people any time I want, without government permission or intervention, I cannot demand that other people gather with me if they don’t want to. No one can stop me from gathering, but I can’t demand a certain behavior from anyone else.

Positive rights, on the other hand, demand something from another party. Take, for example, education.  If I have the right to a college education, then I can demand that someone provide me with that. My so-called right to education requires action from professors, teachers, etc., as well as from whoever is paying for this education. Where negative rights require inaction from outside parties, positive rights require action from outside parties.

It can be helpful to think of positive rights as “entitlements” and negative rights as “liberties.” In the case of the negative right to freedom of religion, I should have the liberty to engage in my religious practices without interference. In the case of a positive right to free healthcare, I am entitled to certain goods and services.

We can all agree on the legitimacy of certain negative rights; freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, property rights, and more. They are the bedrock of civil society. But positive rights are a little trickier, precisely because they require the active participation of other people.

Let’s look at the education example again.  

If we say that I have the right to a college education, that means that I am legally entitled to the services of a school. Because this education is my right, I don’t have to pay for it. So, under socialism, the financial burden must fall to the taxpayers; ultimately, they are the ones fulfilling my right.  

But here we run into a problem. How much is college worth? How much is a professor’s time worth? In a free market, a teacher has a negative right to his time; I cannot take it without his consent. If I want him to teach me, I have to offer value in return. But if I have a positive right to college, and the teacher has a negative right to his time, our “rights” are immediately at odds.

In a free market, the teacher determines how much his time is worth. But under socialism, not only does the government determine what the teacher’s time is worth, it also has the authority to force the teacher to provide his services regardless of price – I have a right to it, after all.

And so the cycle begins. Because the purpose of government is to safeguard the rights of its citizens, people will be forced to provide me with an education; taxpayers will be forced to pay for it, schools will be forced to facilitate it, and teachers will be forced to provide it. My positive right (or entitlement) will have trumped the negative rights (liberties) of others.

On the other hand, in a free society, I have the negative right to pursue whatever education I desire. No one can stop me from attaining the education I want; even if circumstances (like financial situations) make it more difficult for some, no one can actively deprive me from pursuing an education. I am free to determine what kind of education I want, and what it’s worth to me. Schools and teachers are free to determine what their services are worth, and must adjust according to the market; quality, pricing, and variety is driven by supply and demand. Each of our negative rights are respected, and both parties have to give and take in order to achieve mutual benefit.

Now, it’s important to recognize that this is often not how the school system works in many societies that we think of as free market economies – for example, the United States. Students suffer from prohibitively high tuition, leading to crippling student debt, leading to public demand for student loan forgiveness and free schooling; often based on the premise that everyone has the right to a college education. Ironically, many of the problems with America’s student debt problem are the result of ignoring free-market principles in favor of things like crony capitalism (see last week's blog). Many of us are completely unfamiliar with a truly free education market, and the example given above may sound trite.  But it’s helpful to understand the difference between positive and negative rights.

Once we understand what rights really are – once we can make the distinction between things we have a right to and things we have a right to pursue – we can really begin to think through how to create economic policies that truly respect everyone’s rights.

Written by Becca Weigel for Gratefully Helena


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