This distinction between positive and negative rights, isn’t
August 1, 2014 § 6 Comments
Libertarians – and some other folks who are liberal moderns but are under the delusion that they are not – will sometimes make use of a distinction between “positive rights” and “negative rights”, condemning the former while celebrating the latter. Negative rights involve protection of the individual from things others demand of us without our consent, while positive rights involve an imperative to hand over our stuff to others even though we didn’t consent to do so.
This distinction is illusory for the same basic reason that the libertarian ideal of completely consensual contracts is illusory. It presumes a whole metaphysic of what certain people are entitled to from others – which is precisely what is in contention – and then pretends that it hasn’t made this presumption.
Justice cannot be fabricated whole cloth from consent or contract. Consent and contract do mediate what people are entitled to in justice in particular situations, of course. But the idea that what is just can be fabricated whole cloth from consent is another form or cognate of positivism. An epistemological positivist doesn’t comprehend that in order for words to communicate meaning, almost all of the meaning must already exist in the minds of the people talking. And a consent-positivist doesn’t comprehend that when a given disposition of property is just, almost all of what the parties are entitled to from each other did not arise from the consent of the parties.
None of this is to suggest that people are not entitled to things from each other. A property owner is entitled to walk around on his property; a trespasser isn’t, even though that represents a restriction on the trespasser’s freedom.
But what it means is that the illusion of consent which forms the basis of the positive-negative rights distinction is just that: a question-begging illusion.