A healthy government protects personal freedom without regard for wealth, class, or place of birth. Governments fail to do this by either failing to protect those rights – as in Somalia – or by actually infringing upon them – as is the trend in the United States.

Most of us are familiar with the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that suggests that all men have the right of “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We may be less familiar with the phrase that likely inspired the line; it was written by John Locke:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Locke’s view is that we have a right to life, liberty, property, safety, and the pursuit of happiness. For reasons like taxation, Jefferson, Franklin, and some of the other founding fathers thought it wise to de-emphasize the idea that we have a right to our own property – an unfortunate beginning to the U.S. government’s half-hearted protection of personal property.

Negative vs. Positive Rights

What the Declaration and original Constitution protect are exclusively negative rights – rights that require inaction  These are opposed to positive rights, which require action. The right to enjoy your lunch without someone stealing it is a negative right. If someone claims they have a right to your lunch, they are claiming a positive right. (Wikipedia article)

The justifications for enforcing positive rights are almost always Utilitarian (Wikipedia article) in nature; proponents of positive rights argue that government should do what results in “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” What’s wrong with a government trying to maximize the happiness of its subjects? As it turns out, quite a lot. Despite attempts of modern Utilitarian philosophers, there is no defense for personal rights to be found in any form of Utilitarianism. The Declaration of Utilitarian Independence would read, “society has the right to determine the fate and value of your Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness.”

Example: Health Care

I had a disagreement with a good friend about public health care. She argued that the “right to life” included proper care, and that healthcare was, therefore, also a right. This interpretation highlights perfectly the difference between the negative right to live and positive right to life.

The negative right to life in the Declaration was quite clearly a reference to being “allowed” to live. The Bill of Rights was constructed to prevent the use of force against individuals, whether lethal or otherwise. It focused primarily on protecting the individual from the government or the masses. The original Bill of Rights was in this regard profoundly anti-Utilitarian and pro-individual rights.

The positive “right” to life is a claim to the time, money, or efforts of someone else. Those who claim a positive right to life assert that they should be cared for at the expense of another person. Such entitlement claims effectively suggest that slavery is OK, as long as a life is at stake. I shudder to think about the positive-right version of the right to pursue happiness.

There is no doubt we could save more lives if we had unlimited resources to do so. Unfortunately, resources are and always will be limited. We cannot force car manufacturers to give everyone crash-resistant vehicles. We cannot order doctors to provide daily checkups for anyone who asks. We could do a lot to save more lives, but where does a claim to life at another’s expense end? More importantly, where is the justification for even starting down this path?

I am absolutely not arguing against giving. Under the right circumstances, a doctor may even have a moral obligation to care for those who he or she can save or help. Just as we do not pass laws against saying unkind things, a moral obligation is not justification enough for legal obligation.

Forcing People to Do Good

Most of us will accept that it would be good to give to the Red Cross. Hopefully, we can also agree that it would be wrong for the Red Cross to send armed groups into the street to forcibly collect donations from the wealthy. Our moral aversion to forced service again illustrates the difference between negative and positive rights.

Now replace the Red Cross with the government, and disaster relief with healthcare. Caring for those who are sick and cannot afford care is a good thing. Forcing people to care for the sick is bad. “Should” does not equal “must”; forcing people to do good is wrong.

Why would we give any weight to the baseless argument that the government can do things that you, I, or the Red Cross cannot?

Government’s Role is Not Partial Slavery

The government that enforces positive rights is nothing more than a partial slave driver, taking from its citizens under the pretense of legitimacy. Despite the best intentions of those demanding compliance, there is no goodness in compelling support from the unwilling.

We do not believe that there are an inherent set of rights endowed by a creator or given by some higher power. We do believe that protecting individual freedom is conducive to our happiness. If freedom from slavery is a good thing, so is a government that allows us freedom from the claims of the majority.