#64 The Right Side of Ethics

Natural rights, as a concept, seems to be lost in the modern political lexicon. Natural rights are differentiated from legal rights, in that they are not dependent upon the basis of a legal system. More succinctly, these rights can be defined as negative rights and positive rights.

Negative rights (or natural rights) are universal, inalienable rights. By their definition they cannot be repealed or impinged by man made institutions. These rights include the ability to be, to do, to say, to own, to buy and to sell. Certainly, all of this is not to say that negative rights cannot be denied to individuals living within a society which seeks to control the individual, rather that there is no proper moral and legal jurisdiction which has the justification to restrict these rights.

Positive rights (or legal rights) are the “give me stuff” of political policy making. The “right” to healthcare. The “right” to education”. The “right” to police speech. The “right” to steal or destroy property.

The basis of Western prosperity can be found in the governing documents which laid out a clear case for the establishment and absolute sovereignty of the negative rights of the individual. From the commencement of western civilization negative rights were firmly established as the basis from which all policy making should be derived.

However, political rhetoric caters to an appeal for positive rights in the interests of a particular group. This rhetoric can take many forms and be either wide or narrow in its scope. The fundamental reason positive rights are not delineated what so ever in the Constitution of the United States is because positive right require infringement on the negative rights of others.

For example, while the positive right of “healthcare for all” might be politically popular, the economic reality of such destination, requires a redistribution of existing resources such that in order to provide X for group A, Y must be denied to group B. There are a whole manner of bad ethical justifications for why A deserves X more than B deserves Y, but the philosophical basis of these conversations can be summed up quite easily without getting lost in the hypothetical rhetoric whirlpool of concern trolling.

Your right to do, to think, to say, and to own and to buy and sell do not impinge on the rights of others. Your right to the fruits of labor (which in an advanced society take the forms of education, healthcare, housing, etc) of another require that thing be taken from someone else first. That is to say, positive rights for one requires denying negative rights to another.

None of this is to say that negative and positive rights exist in a vacuum and only negative rights are good and all positive rights are bad. On the contrary, it is to establish that negative rights are a framework for a free and fair society and positive rights are idealistic in their nature. Depending on what form idealism takes within a society there can be vast negative consequences for widespread deprivation of natural rights to the individual.

These definitions are of crucial importance when it comes to sorting out political rhetoric in our society. The overreach of government action in the market economy has created such deeply entrenched turmoil in the human experience, that idealism in the form of positive rights (at the hand of political activism) is offered as the one and only solution.

Certainly, there can be no denying, as wealth inequality grows and as markets and money become more and more dysfunctional, the demand for positive rights grows louder. The advantages offered to the ruling elite under the socialized monetary system that we see today are great, and if pacification of the mobs can be achieved through positive rights (which by their nature require MORE central planning and MORE government overreach), then for them it is win-win.

You should know by now that we believe, when left to their own devices, free markets and human action are the most equitable form of voluntary cooperation between men. And in addition, increasing government redistribution of resources disrupts the natural benefits of voluntary cooperation and the feedback mechanisms of the market.

I would encourage you, as you are bombard by political rhetoric on a regular basis be it from your Facebook feed, or the emails from your father in law, that you take a step back from the polarization of tribalism. If either side of the political aisle is seeking to protect your positive rights, who’s negative rights are being impinged?

For a deeper look at these principles you should turn to the great thinkers such as Thomas Paine, Frederic Bastiat, John Locke, Ludwig Von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. The lens of Austrian and classical liberal thinking is a sobering one.

Book of the Month:

The Road to Serfdom by F A Hayek

-“It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now–independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors–are essentially those on which the of an individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it already has destroyed then it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to what is collectively decided to be good.”

A fierce Canadian goose aggressively defending his tower.