In a June 13 speech, Bernie Sanders offered the clarion call for his presidential run—that solving the problems facing America requires we
take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman and child in our country basic economic rights—the right to quality health care, the right to as much education as one needs to succeed in our society, the right to a good job that pays a living wage, the right to affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement, and the right to live in a clean environment.
Unfortunately, in echoing both the Soviet and EU constitutions, Sanders is also promising mutually contradictory rights, which logic demonstrates cannot possibly be delivered.
The Constitution of the Soviet Union assured citizens of multiple rights, including to education, housing, health protection, work, “maintenance in old age,” and even “rest and leisure.” But the exercise of such rights was always subject to the condition that they were not “to the detriment of the interests of society or the state.” In other words, individual rights only actually existed where and when the state decided it didn’t get in the way of what it wanted to do. More briefly, it meant citizens’ individual rights didn’t exist except on paper.
Positive and Negative Rights
Along the same lines, the EU Constitution parallels ours in asserting individual rights, such as freedom of religion and expression. However, the Charter of Fundamental Rights also guarantees rights to education, housing assistance, job placement services, preventative health care, social services, social security benefits, paid maternity leave, and more.
Unfortunately, the expansive combination of rights promised in each of these cases is inconsistent with the fundamental right to be free, including the right to exercise decisions over the use of our own property. That is because “positive” rights to housing, education, health care, etc., provided or mandated by government, require that someone else must be forced to pay for them. But that inherent obligation necessarily violates others’ liberty by taking their income and property without their consent. Consequently, the liberty “guaranteed” as a fundamental right does not exist in practice.
When government creates new positive rights, taking the resources to pay for them necessarily takes away others’ inalienable rights and liberty.
The key is that the positive rights to certain things require the violation of others’ negative rights against having their property taken by the government. In contrast, negative rights are prohibitions laid out against others’ abuses, particularly by the government, exemplified by the strictly limited, enumerated powers the US Constitution granted our central government and what the Bill of Rights put off-limits to political trespass.
But negative rights are eaten away by every expansion of what government promises. Americans’ constitutional rights reflect the Declaration of Independence’s central assertion that all have inalienable rights, including liberty, and that government’s purpose is to defend those rights. But the only rights that can be inalienable for all must be consistent with the equal rights of others. Every citizen can enjoy negative rights against government abuse without infringing on anyone else's equal rights because they impose on others only the obligation to not interfere. But when the government creates new positive rights, extracting the resources to pay for them necessarily takes away others’ inalienable rights and liberty.
Liberty and Inalienable Negative Rights
Liberty means people rule themselves, and voluntary arrangements are the means of resolving conflict. But when government assigns positive rights to others, it means someone else rules over the choices and resources taken from those forced to pay. However, since no one has the right to rob others, if government is to remain within the narrow range consistent with equal rights, no one can delegate that power to government.
America was founded on the idea that we have inalienable negative rights that do not originate with the government, which the government, therefore, cannot take away.The more seriously such entitlements are taken, the less liberty will remain. But as people have learned to get public support by dressing up more things they wish others to pay for in the language of rights, our government has increasingly turned to violating the rights it was instituted to defend.
However noble-sounding promises of more for you at others’ expense can be made to sound by way of sins of omission, they violate America’s core values represented in our founding documents. Most seriously, it would completely undermine any assurance that Americans’ right to liberty, and the property that sustains it, would be secure. And the more seriously such entitlements are taken, the less liberty will remain.