All Commentary
Monday, September 1, 1969

On Economic Rights

Mr. Kelley is majoring in philosophy as a student at Brown University.

The modern liberal has tried to assume the mantle of liberty’s de­fender as worn by the liberal of the nineteenth century. Though thirty years of his “social experiments,” and volumes of theory, have shown that he does not fit the role, his self-image has hardly changed. And most persistent of all, per­haps, is his incongruous claim that he is defending man’s rights.

The basis of that claim is the theory of “economic rights,” which is founded in society’s alleged duty to provide all its members with certain “necessities.” These claims of the individual against society, however, cannot be called “rights.” Consider, for example, the follow­ing assertion of an economic right:

Everyone has the right to educa­tion. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.1

Such statements are little more than obfuscation; if left unques­tioned, they would destroy the meaning of “right,” and attach the libertarian connotations of the word to statist programs of com­pulsion. Let us see why.

It has often been observed that rights are closely connected with duties, that your rights impose obligations on me and the protec­tion of your rights requires re­strictions on my freedom to act. This is true so far; the possession of rights would be meaningless if no one were obliged to observe them. But what sort of obligation is involved? In the answer to this question lies the difference be­tween natural rights and the liberals’ “economic rights.”2 A man’s natural rights entail only a nega­tive obligation for other men—the obligation not to use force against him. “Economic rights,” on the other hand, impose positive obli­gations, which in fact violate nat­ural rights.

Natural Rights—and Responsibilities

One of the sources for the theory of natural rights is John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. Man in the state of nature—that is, man by his own nature—possesses rights to life, liberty, and property. These are all expressions of man’s freedom from other men. But what about duties; what does man owe to other men? Only the recognition of their rights.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.3

This is the negative obligation not to use force against other men; there is no positive obligation that is natural, as rights are.

Thomas Jefferson held a similar theory. The rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” establish man’s independence from other men; they do not, however, entail any positive duties of men toward one another. “From the point of view of the community, `rights’ have a negative implica­tion…. His ‘natural rights’ theory of government left all men naturally free from duties to their neighbors.”4

It is not difficult to show why these rights do not imply positive duties. Natural rights are all rights to actions. The right to life is not the right to have one’s life assured; it is, rather, the right to live. It is the right to take the ac­tions one considers necessary to secure his life and happiness. The right to life does not, however, guarantee the success of any ac­tions—only the freedom to act.

The other natural rights apply to specific areas of freedom. The right to property is the right to own, to use and control, the things one has earned, but it applies only after one has earned them. Whether or not one will earn them is another matter—not a question of rights. Rights protect actions, but they cannot guarantee the suc­cess of those actions; they protect men from each other, but not from reality and the fact that only by certain actions can they achieve their purposes.

Human Relations and Economic Rights

One of the areas in which rights protect man’s freedom of action is that of human relations. A right to action is a right to act on one’s judgment, including his judgment of other men. One is thus free to choose with whom he will associ­ate. Other people, however, also have rights and the freedom to choose, which one is obliged to re­spect. In any association of men, therefore, the free consent of all involved is a moral prerequisite.

A duty asserts a moral relation between two or more men. Accord­ing to the libertarian argument, therefore, obligations other than to abstain from the use of force can only be incurred by some pre­vious, freely chosen act, such as signing a contract. Any obliga­tion not incurred in this way would be an infringement on my moral freedom to act as I choose, and thus an infringement on my natural rights.

An examination of “economic rights” will show that they do im­ply positive obligations which are incompatible with liberty. A man has the right, according to the U.N. Declaration, to a job (Art. 23), leisure (Art. 24), an adequate standard of living, food, clothing, shelter, and security (Art. 25), and education (Art. 26). All of these are, in one form or another, rights to things, to economic goods. The difference here between natural and “economic rights” is evident. Natural rights are rights to these things if one earns them, if one obtains them in mutually voluntary trade with others. “Eco­nomic rights,” however, attach no such condition to the right; a per­son has a “right” to have these goods, regardless of how they are to be obtained. Thus, while natural rights guarantee men the freedom to act, though not guaranteeing the success of their actions, “eco­nomic rights” guarantee men things produced by the successful actions of others.

The value of economic goods is largely a reflection of the fact that human labor is required for their production. A “right” to an eco­nomic good, then, includes a “right” to the human labor in­volved, that labor which was suc­cessful in producing the good. These “rights” obviously impose positive obligations on at least some men; if someone else has a right to something that I produce, then I am obliged to produce it for him.

Natural rights only require that men abstain from certain kinds of action, but say nothing further about how they should act. “Eco­nomic rights,” on the other hand, require positive actions from men because they specify the goals and beneficiaries for which they should act. They specify certain products which must be produced, and the methods by which these products are to be distributed. If people have a right to food, clothing, and wealth enough for leisure, these things must be produced; if every­one has a right to them, they must be distributed so that everyone has them. To require that certain things be produced is to require that men produce them, that is, that men act in certain ways, for certain goals. To require that goods be distributed in any way other than by the prior voluntary agreement of the producers is to require that some men act for other men, not as a gift, not out of benevolence, but as a legally en­forceable duty.

Imposing on Others

No theory that imposes upon men unchosen duties—which are in no way incurred by their exer­cise of natural rights—can claim to protect political freedom. If the government tries to protect eco­nomic rights, it necessarily vio­lates natural ones.

Is there, however, another “di­mension of freedom,” economic freedom? The concept of “free­dom” can only be applied where the potential “oppressor” is not completely determined in his (or its) actions; that is, one can only be free from men. “Economic freedom,” however, as liberals use the term, means exemption from certain economic laws. To be free from these, one would have to be free from their conditions. One condition is the nature of reality. Man has certain needs that must be satisfied by recourse to the ex­ternal world. But if he acts to gain things from nature, he is subject to her laws: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Man must discover what will sat­isfy his needs, how to obtain it, and then act to gain it. Nothing guarantees success at any of these steps, and poverty or disease or ignorance is the penalty imposed on the unsuccessful. No one can be free from this; one cannot legis­late a change in reality. One can only substitute the work of some­one else for his own, and in doing so, he is not free from the require­ments of reality; he has only found a new way of meeting them. The other condition against which “economic rights” protect is the exercise of free choice by other men. Thus, in a free society, if a man wants a job, the employer must be willing to hire him; if he wants to buy a product, the pro­ducer must be willing to sell it to him. To be free from this condi­tion, one must be free from indi­vidual choice, which means: free from freedom, which is meaning­less. The obligations which “eco­nomic rights” impose restrict one’s moral and political freedom with­out in any way producing a coun­terbalancing increase in freedom.

Those “rights” have additional antiliberal implications. An obli­gation to observe the “economic rights” of other people easily be­comes a duty to the state, for it is only through the state’s programs that such “rights” can be ob­served. It is only the state, more­over, which can decide what “eco­nomic rights” there are, and who has them, for those “rights” de­pend on what the economy can afford, and, as a result, are con­stantly changing. Since “economic rights” infringe upon political freedom, to recognize them is to recognize the right of the state to decide how much freedom it is go­ing to allow, and how much it will destroy, whether that decision is made by a dictator, or by pressure groups, or by majority vote.

The doctrine of “economic rights” thus provides an excuse for statists to destroy the consti­tutional system of freedom which is based on natural, inalienable rights. That doctrine is therefore a moral and intellectual fraud—the state-conferred benefits to which it refers cannot be called rights.



I U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, sec. 1.

2 In fact, there is one economic right: the natural right to acquire and dispose of property through free trade. I shall use the phrase “economic right,” how­ever, to refer to things like welfare, housing, and education, assuming for the sake of argument that they are rights.

3 Second Treatise, sec. 6.

4 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1948), p. 195-6.



Economics in One Lesson

The long-run consequences of some economic policies may become evident in a few months. Others may not become evident for several years. Still others may not become evident for decades. But in every case those long-run consequences are contained in the policy as surely as the hen was in the egg, the flower in the seed.

From this aspect, therefore, the whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.


  • David Kelley is founder of The Atlas Society and the author of many books.