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Home When Positive and Negative Rights Collide

When Positive and Negative Rights Collide

The birth control battle is another reminder that entitlements and freedoms do not coexist well, even if we set aside the economic issues, because entitlements end up intruding into the spaces of freedoms. As the United States undergoes the process that replaces the negative right to be left alone with the positive right to be taken care of in every way possible, these conflicts will only worsen.

Americans are getting a taste of life in Europe where social benefits trump individual freedoms, where artificial rights to various government administered benefits and subsidies, along with the protection of national values and social harmony, serve to eliminate most of what Americans have traditionally considered freedom.

While negative rights create safe spaces from outside intervention, positive rights offer a privilege that is overseen by the government. Positive rights are inevitably concerned with social welfare and harmony. They offer universal benefits at the cost of individual liberties.

Every negative right has a mirror image positive right. Freedom of speech meets its evil twin in the right not to be offended by bigotry. Freedom of religion has its evil twin in the imposition of a state religion. Property rights have their evil twin in wealth redistribution and this right is the wellspring of most of the social problems of the state.

The decay of the educational system has created a state of affairs where many can no longer distinguish between the statements, "Everyone has the right to speak their mind" and "Everyone has the right to a home." The inability to make that distinction marks the death of a free society as the former expresses a freedom relative to the state, the latter expresses an obligation on each person to the state.

When people can no longer tell the difference between the right to be left alone and the right to pay for someone else's home, the firewall between freedom and tyranny has successfully broken down. And the most effective way to devalue freedom is by presenting something more seductive in its place, a system that will take care of your needs, that will balance some remaining freedoms with a necessary amount of intrusion that will maximize the collective benefits and harmony of all.

This balance of negative and positive rights is unsustainable, because each new positive rights diminishes the existing negative rights until there are hardly any negative rights left. Each new gift from the government carries with it an invisible price tag in dollars and cents, and in freedoms lost. This loss is often intangible. Like casinos and whorehouses, the progressive way of government is built on befuddling the people so that they don't notice what they are losing.

Positive rights are presented as social obligations, and social obligations are the source of most of the oppressive legislation that exists anywhere. The society is a vague unit which is not represented by a plebiscite, but by the values attributed to it by an elite. It blurs the line between government and the individual by transforming the individual into a collective entity with collective needs and obligations.

Social obligations are often expressed in terms of values. Values are generally code for an emotional appeal to a position that cannot be rationally defended. The values discussed are never individual values, but the collective values of an intangible society as expressed by its cultural and political leaders.

Authentic social obligations and values are not expressed through the state, but through organizations, including religious groups, that reflect those values. A country can and will have groups whose values are in conflict, which is why the universalization and collectivization of values amounts to the creation of a state religion.

Amish values differ from Catholic values which differ from Mormon values which differ from Methodist values which differ from the values of Orthodox Jews, Baptists, Unitarians, Atheists and the whole host of different religious and irreligious value systems that fill the nation. While many of these groups can and do agree on some major points, they don't agree on others, and even when they do, they often differ on the details.

The Catholic Church is strongly in favor of health care for all, it does not however agree on the nature of what health care is with value systems to the left of it. The current controversy is a clash of value systems. Such a clash is easily resolved in a system built around negative rights that leaves all the parties free not to enter into agreements or obligations that they don't want to enter into. However in a system based on positive rights, a clash of values ends with the government compelling one side to abandon its values.

Such clashes are inevitable and so are their conclusions under a system of positive rights. The more positive rights there are, the more clashes develop. And the more they happen, the government begins functioning as a state church enforcing its own values on everyone.

This phenomenon is familiar enough to Europeans where "The Values of the Republic" often replaced the state church and took on an equally sacred meaning. In Israel, Democratic values is often used to mean the same thing, which is particularly confusing as the values involved are never those which have the support of a plurality of the country. In the United States, the progressive Trojan horse way has been to use "American Values" to mean the same thing.

American Values, as used by the progressives to endorse everything from gay marriage to illegal immigration, exists entirely apart from actual Americans who are lectured on the need to do one thing or another in the name of those values. And when there is a conflict between the Constitution and the construct of American Values, then the Values win out over the law. The progressives have done their best to cloak their transformation of the country as a clash between reactionary positions and American Values. Each of their victories is a triumph for the America that they wish to create.

When the state becomes the source of national values, rather than those values residing in religious or other ethical organizations that seek to act out their beliefs in the public space, then the country has taken a significant step toward fascism. The collectivization of values also represents the militarization of a people's beliefs. Such militarization can be found in Muslim theocracies or in any system where allegiance to the nation requires adopting and acting out the values of the state.

The birth control mandate is an example of the collectivization of national values, and the value that every person should have access to subsidized birth control trumps the religious values of major religions. Similar conflicts occur in every arena where progressives create a positive right that conflicts with religious values. The positive right not to be discriminated against conflicts with the negative right of freedom of religion when it comes to gay ceremonies taking place on the property of a church or synagogue.

As the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association found out when it denied the use of their property to two women looking to get married, was sued and lost the case. As the verdict put it, "As to "free exercise," the LAD is a neutral law of general application designed to uncover and eradicate discrimination: it is not focused on or hostile to religion." But that is the genius of positive rights, they do not have to focus on a thing to be hostile to it, so long as the imposition of its guiding virtue is incompatible with the beliefs and values of anyone else.

The decision went on to say: "I do not believe that the facts pose a true question of religious freedom, but were they go, the matter would not be governed by the high bar of "strict scrutiny", but by a much lower standard that tolerates some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals." And that is the progressive tyranny of positive rights in a nutshell which tolerates some intrusion into freedoms for the sake of tolerance and other societal goals.

Similarly for the sake of societal goals, we must tolerate some intrusion into our income, into what we may and may not say, into what we must buy, where we must live and how we must arrange our lives until no safe spaces for freedom actually exist. Only a massive iron wall of positive rights that locks us inside our societal obligations to phantom values that are determined for us by progressive activist groups and the functionaries of the state.

Where does it end? It never does. Values are absolute, they represent ideals and ideals can never be met. To enforce values is to conduct an endless war against all that stands in your way. The wars on bigotry, poverty, greed, bad habits and all the other grave societal ills can never be won. Those wars lead into ancillary conflicts against people who want to hold on to their beliefs and their money, against boys who play with toy guns, the overeaters, smokers and jokers, the cranks who tilt at windmills, economic sharks who take advantage of any situation, and the whole endless list of enemies of the state who stand in the way of its societal goals. 

The unwavering pursuit of ideals ends up destroying the very ideal being pursued. Trying to give everyone a home may have damaged home ownership, particularly among the poor and minority groups, for a generation to come. Fighting bigotry has created bigotry and in some cases even turned it into a matter of state policy, as is the case with affirmative action. But that is why the pursuit of ideals by the state are dangerous. A government has too much power and too little flexibility to pursue goals which involve the touchstones of human nature.

When positive and negative rights collide, freedom is the first casualty, and the second casualty is the positive right which over time cannot survive the pressures of the self-destruction of the system that imposes it. Negative rights which require state inaction can be sustained so long as the state does not become too powerful. Positive rights can only be sustained so long as the money and power holds up. Their fate is thoroughly tied to the fate of the system. When the state that enforces them weakens, so do they.

Negative rights put their trust in people. Positive rights put their trust in the state. All states fall sooner or later. Only the people survive.


  1. Not only do entitlements intrude on the spaces of freedoms it also teaches people via example that the world is to take freedoms trivially. The Torah is a book of responsibilities whereas those who are entitlement minded scream of their rights.
    Responsibilities influence a society to be healthy whereas screaming and demanding ones rights only produces this sense of entitlement.
    A book of responsibilities truly is the way we help each other by being concerned for one another.
    Unfortunately it is sorely lacking. I am glad to be a member of my Jewish heritage that has a bookof responsibilities.
    Hats off to another fine article full of clarity, Daniel!

  2. Unless a strong and unified libertarian conservative (negative right) group makes itself heard extremely loud and clear, America will sink into the same quagmire of positive rights as Europe. The gradual imposition of the European model made its citizens unaware of the loss of individual freedom whereby it should be noted that only the enlightenment for a short while created a feeling of individuality and freedom but such was illusionary as there was no real political freedom either. Do realize that most Europeans however, when asked if they feel happy living in Europe with it's tons of regulations in "social justice heaven" they answer predominantly: "yes" and apparently do not crave for what was once known as the model of the land of the free.

  3. dadam22/2/12

    As you pointed out early on, the crisis in the educational institutions of this country have significantly contributed to this loss of freedom. Our public schools have become less concerned about educating our children how to think and far more concerned about indoctrinating them on proper thought. Proper thought, of course, reflects these same values that they are trying to force on the citizenry. I wish we could at least point to the religious colleges and universities as a guard against this tide of collective thought, but alas, they too have eaten from the poisoned apple. Seems to me, that we a Josiah to rise up in the land and rediscover the Book of the Law and bring reform to the land...back to our roots. It is not clear to me that this kind of reform will be allowed to occur in peace.

  4. If anyone has any "progressive" friends or relatives who might be willing to listen (mine aren't, unfortunately), they should tell them this about "positive rights":

    Even if they truly believe that Obama and his cronies are the most perfect and righteous masters imaginable, who says that the next guys who inherit all this power will be as good? Why aren't they even a little bit scared about putting so much control in the hands of human beings?

    I think that even most of the left will admit that the idealism of the Russian Revolution led to a Stalin, whom even they don't admire anymore. Of course, we know that Lenin was at least as bad, but just didn't have as much time to do damage, but maybe some of this will get through to a few of them, the ones whose minds haven't been completely destroyed by public 'education', as mentioned by a previous commenter.

  5. Anonymous22/2/12

    Read Isaiah Berlin's essay 'Two Concepts of Liberty' (1958). Also, check out Adam Curtis' three part documentary, 'The Trap'. And while I'm at it, his seminal 'The Century of the Self', one of the best documentary series ever made. Both superb.

  6. Anonymous23/2/12

    Switzerland is the only country in the world where every decision that impacts on society has to be subjected to a referendum. This is not just at the national level but at the lowest level ie the parish level.

    Representative democracies always lead to the kind of problems that are evident in all democracies(except Switzerland)- capture of the agenda by the best organised to pressure the government to adopt an agenda.

    I believe that for us now, ie the Western democracies, the only hope is for Direct Democracy of the Swiss type.

  7. Anonymous23/2/12

    Good article. Secularism has become the new state religion, by bowing to those types who are "offended" by, for example, a display of the 10 commandments at a courthouse. (Really -- that's offensive?) Thus traditional religious ethics gets pushed into the closet ...

  8. Tallulah1/3/12

    This just might be the clearest piece I've read showing how positive rights usurp liberty. On one hand it created a picture in my mind of a world where people of differing beliefs, values and ideas, chosen obligations and lifestyles can go their own differing ways together in peace (negative rights). On the other hand I can already see for myself a world where people seethe with resentment against each other as some are forced to act against their beliefs, values, and ideas in order to serve the "official" set of values.

    Regarding gay marriage, under a system of "negative rights" I would expect a gay couple to be able to form a civil union or civil marriage, protected by a contract and by the law, as marriage is. And any religion that accepted gay marriage in its theology would be free to conduct a marriage ceremony. But no church which rejected homosexual unions would be forced to preside over them. And, of course, the "negative rights" model requires that the right to be free from the initiation of physical force (including force against one's property) and fraud will be protected equally for everyone by law.


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