The idea of positive rights is that people have a “right” to be given particular benefits, material resources or services by others. They represent claims of a right to receive positive benefits from other people, in the absence of any actual “debt” incurred. They require people to take certain actions with regard to each other. The contemporary notion of a right to healthcare, a right to education and a right to income equality are common manifestations of this.
It is empirically impossible to consistently apply or enforce positive rights to all people. Imagine that every single person has a positive obligation to provide food, clothing, income security, healthcare, and education for each other. Not only does the scarcity of resources make this hopelessly utopian, but it is simply physically impossible for each person to exercise their quotal share of control over everyone else. There is no realistic way for everyone to keep continual tabs on each other as to ensure that they fulfil their alleged positive obligations to serve each other. Therefore, the attempt to enforce positive rights will always in practise impose a burden on one group to the benefit of another. Positive rights cannot realistically be applied equally. Of course, wether they are attempted to be enforced or not, there will always be some degree of inequality in terms of the material resources people possess, and hence people’s alleged positive rights will always be quantitatively imbalanced. Any attempt to set it up so that everyone has an absolutely equal quantity, as well as quality, of goods and services will be in vein.
More importantly, however, is that claims of positive rights inherently must violate what is known as “negative rights”, which are real rights. Positive rights require that people be forced to sacrifice in order to serve each other. In short, all claims of positive rights bestow a positive obligation onto everyone to perform particular actions on the behalf of others. This is essentially altruism or forced egalitarianism. Negative rights, in contrast, bestow an obligation for people to abstain from infringing on the free actions of others. They do not require anyone to take any particular action. Instead, they are based on people abstaining from infringing on the free action of others. Negative rights is to be understood as freedom from the violence or coercion of other people. A negative right is a right not to be subjected to an action of another human being, or group of people, such as a state, in the form of violence or coercion. Therefore, positive rights violate negative rights in that they infringe on the liberty of others to not be forced to give to, serve or associate with other people. For example, in forcing someone to give money to someone else, their right to be free from coercion is being trampled upon, for they are being forced to take a particular action to benefit someone else against their will.
If someone has a right of self-ownership, then no one else can legitimately claim control over their bodies. Self-ownership implies that they are free to act without others initiating force or threatening to do so against their person. The alternative to self-ownership is some kind of slavery, even if it’s a partial kind of slavery in question. The consistent application of positive rights would imply that everyone is each other’s slave. But as we have previously touched on, it is impossible to consistently apply it. Therefore, in practise, one individual or group is enslaved to another under a regime of positive rights. If someone has a right to that property by which they voluntarily acquired, then no one else can legitimately claim that property against their will. Property rights implies that they are free to control that which they have justly acquired without others initiating force or threatening to do so against their property or to claim control over it against their will. The alternative to property rights is some kind of theft or coercive usury. The consistent application of positive rights would imply that everyone has a right to steal from each other. But since it is impossible consistently apply positive rights, in practise, one individual or group is plundered to the benefit of another.
As has been pointed out by professor Walter Block, the utopianism of positive rights can further be demonstrated by making another distinction between positive and negative rights. Negative rights violations require a human agent. Positive rights violations don’t. Suppose that a natural disaster occurs, such as a bad tsunami or hurricane in central Asia. Could it be legitimately argued that any negative rights violations occurred? Most certainly not — no individual used any aggression or compulsion against each other. But if one takes positive rights seriously, one could conceivably argue that the people’s positive rights were violated — after all, they had no food, adequate clothing, shelter, healthcare or education! This, of course, is not to say that it would not be wise to provide such victims with food and shelter, but the idea of positive rights would lead us to claim that each and every victim of the disaster has an abstract “right” to have others provide certain services, in this case clothing and shelter, even against their will.
A mighty strange doctrine this notion of positive rights is. Someone can be charged with violating someone else’s rights when they have not done anything to that person at all, and may have never even met the person in their life. A positive rights violation merely requires that someone abstain from fulfilling some expected positive obligation, even if they are completely unaware of such an excepted obligation. In other words, you are charged with a rights violation for the “crime” of taking no action at all or simply not knowing someone else! But people who are separated by oceans and large land masses must therefore be considered guilty in the extreme according to this view, for they mostly don’t really interact with each other at all. In either case, exploring the notion of positive rights empirically clearly leads us into an endless series of absurdities. More importantly, however, in terms of ethics the concept of positive rights is indistinguishable from a concept of mutual theft and slavery.
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