Negative Rights and Positive Rights

Rand Paul recently stated,

“Government was instituted among men to protect your rights, not to create rights. So you don’t have a right to a chair, you don’t have a right to shoes, you don’t have a right to pants, you don’t have a right to health care, you don’t have a right to water — you have a right to be free.”

You can watch the video here.  In response to the video, this article ran on  The article attacks Rand’s philosophy on rights. The writer has some misunderstanding about Rand’s position that I will clarify.

The writer spent the bulk of the article attacking Rand’s view on rights. The writer starts out by agreeing with Rand that we do have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Then the writer goes on to say that the Declaration of Independence does not limit us to these three rights, so there are more and the three listed are just examples. The writer does not offer any evidence for this claim and just makes the one assertion. This assertion is simply untrue. The ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as being rights is based off of John Locke’s philosophy that was limited to just those three rights.

For the next few paragraphs the writer goes on aimlessly about rights. So I will try to provide some clarification on rights. Rand Paul subscribes to the natural right theory. This means that humans have certain rights that they receive for being human or from their creator.  Paul believes that no one can ever morally take any of these rights away from someone.

The other theory is legal positivism. This theory states that rights come from government and are given to the people. In this theory, the government is granted the power  to take and give rights as they believe is moral.

Natural rights are also negative rights. Negative rights say that you have the right to be able to do something. Positive rights differ, as positive rights give you the right to something. We will use pants as an example.

If I have a negative right to pants, then no one can prevent me from owning pants. If I do not have a negative right to pants, then I am unable to own pants. If I have a positive right to pants, then someone must provide pants to me when I do not have my own. This also implies the moral authority to take pants away from others if you do not have enough of your own.

What the writer failed to understand is that Rand was saying you do not have the moral authority to take pants, chairs, shoes, healthcare or water for others if you do not have enough. However you do have the moral authority to own as many of these things as you would like.

The writer seems unable to comprehend how one can have the right to own something, but not the right to take it. The writer claims without a (positive) right to water, then people will die. The writer assumes that in order for people to have water they must have the right to take it from others. Rand’s position is that you have the right to own water, but you cannot take it from someone else. Water, like pants, can only be acquired through voluntary interactions.

Next the writer moves to critiquing Rand on his criticisms of Bernie Sanders for being a socialist. The writer uses a joke to show their belief that Rand is absurd for making these arguments. Bernie Sanders’ political identity is a democratic socialist. Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin were all the dictatorial leaders of socialist societies, or communists.  Rand’s argument against Bernie is that he is a socialist like the others only differing in who should rule, the majority or a single leader. Rand’s claim is that it does not matter who the leader is, all socialism leads to the atrocities of the communist regimes.

The writer next says that Rand does not believe in laws. This likely comes from the confusion about rights that I addressed earlier. Rand’s position on laws and the role of government is that they are meant to protect people’s negative rights from other people. Rand is in favor of police stopping theft, but not in favor of jailing people for smoking pot.

The writer then quotes Hobbs to prove the need for government. The writer claims that Hobbs is correct in his position because he thought of it a century before the founding fathers. Completely ignoring  many of the other philosophies about the purpose and role of government. Locke for example, disagreed with Hobbs on the role of government and wrote at roughly the same time.

Where rights come from and what form they take is very important. In either view rights determine the role and scope of government. A government that gives rights to people can always take those rights away. Millions have been slaughtered by their own governments that asserted they had the right to do so. Governments that are restricted by right given to people from their nature do not have this same brutal record.  To ensure peace and liberty for all, government must be restricted in what it can do.



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