Thursday, June 10, 2004

If You Multiply Two Negative Rights, Do You Get One Positive Right?

Lots of people are still talking about this negative-versus-positive rights thing, so I guess they (the writers, not the readers) must not be bored yet. So I’ll just make one more observation that I hope will clear up some confusion. I’ll try to keep it short. Consider two hypothetical rights claims:

(1) I have a right not to be punched without my consent.

(2) I have a right to police assistance in enforcing claim (1).

These claims are not identical. Claim (1) is only a claim to the non-interference of others (they should refrain from punching me). It is therefore a negative right, assuming that I have an underlying property right in my own body. Claim (2), on the other hand, is a claim to the provision of specific services by other people – police officers and, by extension, the taxpayers who fund them. It is therefore a positive right, unless we assume that I own the labor of the police or a fraction of the wealth of the taxpayers.

By merging claims (1) and (2), Eugene and some others reach the conclusion that some allegedly negative rights are actually positive. It is a natural merger (though not a necessary one, as anarchists will emphasize), because claim (1) does not seem terribly useful unless backed up by claim (2). Libertarians who support both claims are indeed supporting some positive rights, albeit only those used to back up negative rights. But nonetheless, the two claims are conceptually distinct, and dehomogenizing them will clear up much confusion.

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