The Constitution is a charter of negative rather than positive liberties – Judge Richard Posner
One of my favorite childhood sayings comes to me from my father:
Liberalism is like baby fat. It melts away as you grow older.
Sadly, I don’t find that statement to be as true as it once was. Shifting demographics play a part. Our failing schools are deserving of greater blame.
Most adults fail to understand that our Constitution is a Charter of Negative Rights – and the crucial role Negative Rights play in our lives.
A “right” always conveys an action or a non-action onto another.
There are two types of rights* – negative and positive. The distinction between the two is vital.
A Negative Obligation or Right is the requirement of abstention from an activity which violates another individual’s rights. A Negative Right is the requirement of a non-action.
I am forbidden from acting in a manner which takes away your life.
Positive Obligations are the opposite.
A Positive Obligation or Right is the requirement to engage in an activity to secure another individual’s rights. Positive Rights require an action from us on behalf of another individual.
I must contribute some of my labor (taxes) to pay for someone else’s right (healthcare).
Our Constitution is fundamentally built on the notion of Negative Rights – or Negative Obligations. Why is this?
Negative Rights stem from the only fundamental right – the right to life.
All other rights spring from this most basic of rights.
Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. It is a right each of us enjoy. We all have the right to live our own life. None are allowed to take it from us lawfully.
The right to life conveys freedom for an individual to pursue actions which support, sustain, and enhance his life. It implies freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by others.
From right to life comes right to property. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Why?
Because, by definition, a man who produces products while others dispose of his product, is actually a slave. Control over the benefits of his labor has been lost to another. The guarantee that if he earns it, he will keep it, has been lost.
Under our Constitution, every individual has the right to engage in activities to preserve and enhance his life – as long as that individual refrains from engaging in activity which prevents others from doing the same.
In other words; Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
When every citizen is granted these same rights, then none are allowed to engage in any behavior that impairs the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness of another.
This is why we as individual citizens, have only Negative Obligations placed on us by our Constitution.
This must be so – by definition – in order to protect our individual rights.
Note that nowhere is there a guarantee of the outcome of one’s actions:
The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as described in the Declaration of Independence, doesn’t mean that someone else is forced to provide you with the means to sustain or improve your life.
It means that government cannot enact laws, rules, or regulations that interfere with or infringe upon your right to pursue such things.
– Jacob Hornberger
We are free to pursue goals. We are not guaranteed to attain them.
Which brings me to perhaps the single greatest differentiation between Conservatives and Liberals.
Conservatives believe our Constitution is founded on certain inalienable rights and as such is fixed and timeless.
Inalienable rights are those rights which are incapable of being taken away, denied, transferred or surrendered to another.
Inalienable – or unalienable (same meaning) – rights are eternal. These rights were the same a thousand years ago and they will be the same a thousand years from now.
Liberals, by contrast, believe in a Living Constitution – one that changes with time. From this vantage point, there are no inalienable rights. Rights under a Living Constitution can be taken away at any point.
Which is effectively the same as having no Constitution at all.
Let’s return to a word used earlier. Slavery. Slavery occurs when control over one’s own labor has been lost to another.
When the argument of slavery is made, it’s often meant with derision from liberals. But in that dismissive response, there lies a fundamental failure to understand that a demand made on one person requiring that they work on behalf of another is indeed a direct form of slavery.
Consider that word in the context of healthcare.
Many believe that Healthcare is a “Universal Right”. But they fail to consider what that “Right” really implies.
Senator Rand Paul made the following comments during a debate on healthcare:
With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies.
That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me and force me to take care of you.
It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician in your community.
It means you believe in slavery.
It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.
Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services you’re basically saying you believe in slavery…
That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be.
Rand Paul is absolutely correct.
Some may be quick to point out that doctors would be paid and are therefore not “slaves”. Maybe yes, maybe no.
They are being required to perform a service – at a price not set by market forces.
For the sake of argument, let’s say I require back surgery and am unable to pay for it. Let’s assume the doctor is willing to perform the surgery at the specific price allowed by Universal Healthcare. His service in this instance is voluntary.
Who is to pay for the service?
Under a system of Universal Healthcare, back surgery has become my right – a Positive Obligation or Right placed onto others. A Positive Obligation conferred onto you.
I have a right to back surgery. As such, it is your obligation to pay for it – in order to avoid infringing upon my rights. You cannot refuse making the payment. To do so would be infringing upon my right to healthcare.
I have made you my slave.
The fruits of your labor are transferred to me through taxes – because I have been granted a right to healthcare. You are no longer working on your own behalf. You are working – at least in part – on my behalf.
By claiming a right – a Positive Obligation – to health care, I have now trampled on your rights – by forcing you to do something against your will.
If you find yourself uncomfortable with the discussion of healthcare, let’s exchange that word with “house”.
Under a new policy of Universal Housing, everyone now has a right to a house.
Well, no, they don’t. Most people wouldn’t advocate that everyone is entitled to be given a home. But let’s pursue that a bit further and pretend that’s the new national policy.
For each individual, how do we determine what type of house, how expensive should it be, how big a house, what location is it in, how many amenities and appliances should it have. Is it then required that all utilities be paid, along with basic maintenance, even property taxes?
Is it acceptable that my house is bigger than yours or in a nicer location with better schools? Do I have to surrender my house in the name of equality?
The argument quickly becomes silly.
But it’s fundamentally no different than the discussion over healthcare.
Lack of understanding over this basic concept is exactly why Liberals often believe that tax cuts are “giving money to the rich”. By taking less of your money, they believe they are giving it to you. Forcibly taking less of what an individual has earned is not “giving money”. It is simply the government taking less of your labor than last year.
We all have the right to pursue our personal dream home. We do not have the right to demand we be given one.
Remember, we have only Negative Obligations placed on us by our Constitution.
In doing so, our Constitution safeguards our Individual Rights.
*The word “Right” can be used interchangeably in this discussion with the terms “Obligation” or “Liberty” – as in “positive obligations” or “negative liberties”.