Positive/Negative Rights

Currently we are at a crossroads in the U.S. over negative or positive rights, I think.

Negative vs. Positive rights are not necessarily ideas debated about in our politics so, we can start at what is meant by negative and positive rights:

Negative rights are those rights such as “freedom of speech,” “freedom of religion,” etc. they are those rights which prevent government/society from making rules or decisions in.  They are the “live and let live” style of rights.

Then there are positive rights.  These rights are those which require society/government to step in and DO something to promote/protect those rights.  These are the ones that tend to cause a bit more debate as to whether they “are” rights or not such as the right to clean water that is debated.  But, I will stick with it due to ease. This “right” would, if read in a positive sense, require that society step in to try to make sure “clean” water (however that is defined) is available to all individuals in that society.  One that may be of more interest to people is this un-written yet, seemingly assumed, “right to social security benefits.”

Most of the time in our politics, these differences get mixed together or confused in such a way as to obfuscate the different types of rights and goals of programs trying to work with those rights.  Most importantly, since this difference is not discussed generally, it means that our debate/separation between parties does not find common ground and ends up putting emphasis on different types of rights for different groups without ever recognizing that those different goals exist.

This muddling is what I think is helping to contribute to the rift between parties and the feeling of separation that some people feel in a general sense.  Arguably, there is a group of people who tend to think more in terms of “negative” when it comes to rights, they focus on those sorts of rights and tend to picture rights and think that programs that support that style of right should be promoted.  At least, for certain aspects.  What is really interesting is people across the political spectrum want both positive and negative rights, just in different ways (usually to suit themselves only).

Take that “right to clean water” I mentioned earlier.  Some people think that is definitely a positive right meaning policies/practices need to be put in place to make sure every individual in a society can get drink-able water for a reasonable price or free.  Definitely something someone in say, Flint, Michigan, can look forward to and consider to be important.  Or, in a larger sense, farmers in dry regions in the United States and those sorts of “water rights.”  Notice how someone in Flint wanting free water is asking for a hand-out or entitlement program but, a farmer wanting access to water in land basically unfit to farm on, is asking for a right to work on that land.  Also notice how both want a positive right in their favor and not necessarily towards the other side due to not considering negative/positive rights. Or, say  in the EPA debate, the EPA enacts rules/regulations to try to make sure waterways stay clean enough to drink out of, a very positive action towards a right to clean water but many want to push against the EPA and would rather have a “negative” right to clean water in that, there simply is nothing preventing them from water access. How about that, just sliced one thing into three separate ones all of which have potential to be at odds with each other.  What would happen if we, as a society, began to actually have a discussion which explored this slicing?

How about something more interesting: the right to healthcare.  A relatively…..fresh topic on the minds of citizens in the U.S.  Take a look at the difference in view of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the American Health Care Act.  Basically, one could say/assume that the ACA was a step towards a “right to health” in a more positive sense as in, entitlement program.  Whereas, probably, an American Health Care Act will be a push back against such a strong positive right and more of a negative right in that, barriers to getting healthcare/insurance will be broken down.

Essentially, who’s responsibility is it for rights: the individual’s or society’s?  That is the question that ends up happening in some of our current debates I think and no one is asking it openly so we cannot begin to actually make headway in sorting out what is the best option.  In reference to healthcare, is it the individual’s responsibility to save/invest/whatever to have insurance to pay for healthcare or is it society’s responsibility to set up some way for healthcare to be accessed for every individual?  So far, since that debate has not happened it seems that we have a bit of both and neither side works particularly well then.

I do not intend to come down on a side on this debate yet because I am currently on the fence but, an important question that could be asked is “who’s responsibility is this?” Next would be, “why them?” I think if we began to get those two questions answered clearly we might be able to start finding some solutions to many of our problems.


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