We’re all familiar with the typical millennial spiel: “Healthcare is a human right!” “I have a right to free public college!” “Why? Because Bernie said so!”
And so he did. During his 2016 presidential bid (and long after), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) ran a largely pathos-based campaign. He bombasted what be believed to be a cruel Republican party, and he sparked in his supporters dreams of an altruistic, cruelty-free future.
But his most ardent campaign messages (and the one most devoured by his followers) prove philosophically murky, namely, his argument for positive rights – that humans are naturally endowed with rights to healthcare, education, housing, etc.
I’ll admit: these things do sound great. I mean, who wouldn’t want affordable healthcare or free public college? As a soon-to-be broke college student, I’d love to save a buck or two. But as countless liberal philosophers have argued – particularly John Locke – such “rights” are positive rights, and positive rights don’t exist.
What is a Right?
To begin, it’s first necessary to identify what a right is. A right is an entitlement to keep something from happening to you or others. This is why natural rights are commonly referred to as “negative rights.” The word “negative” does not pertain to the goodness of a right, but rather, to how that right negates things from occurring to you or others.
We can find examples of negative rights in our Constitution. By having a right to freedom of speech, the Founding Fathers understood that individuals have a right to speak without being unjustly disturbed by outside forces. By having a right to bear arms, the Founding Fathers understood that individuals have a right to own arms without being unjustly disturbed by outside forces. It’s important to realize that both of these rights – freedom and speech and the freedom to bear arms – are negative. Rather than granting you something physical, they keep things from happening to you.
On the other hand, “positive rights” – what Sen. Sanders proposes – grant things to you or others. For instance, by claiming a right to healthcare one claims that they are naturally entitled to healthcare. By claiming a right to free public college tuition, one claims that they are entitled to such education.
But this is problematic.
By nature, rights are entitlements, meaning that they’re things that you must have. And under a classically-liberal government (such as the United States), the primary purpose of government is to secure its citizen’s rights. Now, this system works well under the concept of negative rights. Throughout our nation’s history, free speech has been relatively secure, and our right to bear arms has gone largely undisturbed. But things would undoubtedly look dramatically different under the umbrella of positive rights.
How Would Different Types of Rights Play Into Our Society?
Suppose the Bill of Rights were turned positive; our rights would be upside-down. Instead of having a negative right to free speech, having a positive right to such would entail that the government be compelled to provide one with platforms from which to exercise speech. After reading this article, you could theoretically march down to the Highland Fling and force our editors-in-chiefs into publishing your own article. After all, writing is considered speech, and seeing that the government’s duty is to uphold your rights, you could logically compel the government into forcing the Fling to print your article.
And what about the right to bear arms? Under a society based on negative rights, the government is prohibited from unjustly taking away one’s weapons. But if the right to bear arms were positive, I could theoretically force the government to buy me the latest Smith & Wesson revolver.
This, of course, is a ludicrous concept. It’s economically unfeasible to make sure that every citizen has a platform from which to speak off of just as it would be for the government to purchase arms for every citizen who wanted some. But under the concept of positive rights, this egregious idea is perfectly possible.
So the next time you listen to Bernie Sanders, pay close attention to his philosophy. Is he advocating a negative-rights based system which has, for centuries, endowed western society with innumerable freedoms? Or is he arguing a system of positive rights which is both philosophically and economically ludicrous?
Of course, your preferred political system if up to you. But be wary of those pesky politicians, especially of their negative positive rights.