Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Danger of Positive Liberties and the Necessity of the Protection of Negative Ones

The great danger I see in the future of republics and democracies is the misplaced enthusiasm emphasized on the notion that the rights which the people have are, in fact, the rights which the government must provide to be “fair.” I am speaking, of course, of positive rights—those rights which are determined and interpreted by men and not by God. Such phrases as “everyone has a right to health care, the right to a decent wage, and the right to make informed decisions based on public disclosure by private entities providing services and goods to the public” all underscore the treachery of a world where governments are given tremendous authority to implement rights for one group by removing them from another. This is what it means when it is said governments “Rob Peter to pay Paul.” What should really be said is that it does not matter whether Paul deserved Peter's money merely because Peter was corrupt, unethical, or ruined people's lives in the process. Governments are not moral agents which distribute rights to ensure a level playing field. Quite the contrary, a good republic or democracy must do everything it can to never attempt to level the playing field on its own merit. We must not forget that it is not the role of governments to distribute the resources of the people, but merely to ensure that the resources which are acquired by each individual, whether ethically or unethically, are maintained. These are what we call “negative rights,” and they are the thing which republics and democracies ought really to be after.

Of course, we reach an odd predicament here. We have just concluded that the government ought not to be the moral judge of how one acquires one's resources, but that it must merely protect those resources. “But what,” says rightly the skeptic, “of those resources which are obtained by murder or thievery? Are we to protect the thief's resources, for in doing so we obviously did not protect the victim's resources?” And yet herein lies the great pillar of a republic or a democracy: if we do as we say, and we are blind in our justice in the protection of negative rights, the problem should arise less and less that we must protect the resources of the thief. The imprisoned lawbreaker's right to free speech, while unsettling to our stomachs to protect, must still be upheld. But if we are swift and just in our execution of justice, we should need to preserve them much less, for we would live in a society where men behave righteously or, at least, morally decent.

Notice that upon executing such justice, we return almost instinctively to negative rights. We do not speak of the prisoner's right to health care or to decent wages or to the right to public disclosure. We are more interested in the more fundamental rights: the right to property, the right to speak freely, and the right to live morally as he sees fit, so long as his rights to not infringe upon another's rights. It is fitting here that each of these negative rights be labeled as resources, for no tangible definition must be applied to a particular set of objects. Rather, the right of the man to possess any such resource, whether it be his belief in a particular God or his wish to own a plot of land, must be upheld.

What is the danger if they are not? We return again to positive rights. Any government which is leaning less and less on protecting negative rights will often tell you it is providing more positive ones. The one is being neglected for the healthy state of the other. I have not often seen a government in history which does well at both: providing for maximum liberty and maximum social services. Worst off of all is that government which is transitioning between one or the other. For the old post-Soviet Empire was notorious for its severe poverty and hunger, though perhaps more negative rights were being gained. Similarly, in the United States, we have not yet gotten serious about our obsession with positive rights. Therefore, we settle on compromises, such as “mandatory employer-provided health care” or “government aid to helping banks relieve and eliminate toxic assets.” The government never comes out right and says it shall now provide positive rights while at the same time removing the negative ones; it does the thing and then makes some vague motion on morality and decency.

Whether or not this trend towards positive liberties shall continue is yet to be seen. For all our sakes, and especially for the sake of freethinkers, it shall be a very dangerous thing if we should lose these negative liberties as the expense for the positive ones. For what does it really matter if we are publicly informed about who in government is killing innocent citizens if we are, in fact, powerless to speak out or to stop it? He who believes these things cannot occur simply because we are “in a republic” or “in a democracy” is malnourished in his consumption of history. All governments consist of men, and all men are influence in one respect or the other by power. Whether it is the drunken men who are driven to power or the drunkenness of power which drives men to drunkenness, I do not know. What is known is that, should such drunkenness continue, we shall arrive at a state where those liberties which we now enjoy cannot infinitely be assured, not even in these great States.

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