About the Author
Opinion Archives
E-mail Scott
Scott's Links

"Positive" rights and "negative" rights

By Scott Tibbs, March 31, 2014

If you have to use force on someone else in order for you to have something, you do not have a "right" to that object or service. This was plainly obvious for most of our history, but many people (including many in positions of authority on our government) have lost sight of this principle.

In order for my to have the right to free speech or freedom of religion, no one has to give up anything. You may disagree with or even be offended by what I say, but you do not have to help disseminate my speech. I can have the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to due process or the right to be secure from unreasonable searches without taking anything away from anyone else. President Obama calls these "negative" liberties because they prohibit government from doing things to the people under its authority.

Obviously, there are limits to these "negative" liberties. You may not stand outside the mayor's bedroom window at 3:00 am and scream into a megaphone, regardless of the Constitution's protection of the right to petition government for redress of grievances. I do not need to list all of the exceptions, but the exceptions are just that - exceptions. Those exceptions are both rare and limited in scope, and limiting our rights requires a compelling interest by society. We should not sacrifice the normal on the alter of the abnormal.

Today, we see a "right" to something that is not and cannot be a "right" in the classic sense of the term. In order for someone to have a "right" to health care, government must forcibly confiscate wealth from others under threat of violence. In order to provide someone a "right" to health care, the private property rights of others must be abridged. We as a society may decide that government welfare programs are good public policy, but we should not confuse forced redistribution of wealth with the beneficiaries having a "right" to that wealth.

And this brings us to the debate over whether or not employers should be forced to provide chemical birth control to their employees - the essence of the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court. Over and over again, Leftists have bemoaned the danger of employers "forcing their religious beliefs on their employees." According to this backward definition, if someone does not give you money for what you want, or buy it themselves and give it to you directly, they are violating your "rights" or they are "forcing" their religion on you. It shows how far we have fallen as a culture when that argument is not immediately rejected as absurd.

In a free society, we should be free to make choices (within reason) without being forced to operate the way government demands. If an employer does not want to provide birth control because the owner's faith teaches birth control is wrong, the employee is free to purchase it herself or to seek other employment that provides the benefits she wants. Government should stay out of it and not mandate birth control coverage. Remember that a government that can mandate birth control coverage by a private employer can also prohibit it.