All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1996

Rights, Freedom, and Rivalry

The Language of Negative Rights Handicaps Classical Liberals' Arguments

The idea for this paper came out of a conversation the author recently had with Dwight Lee of the University of Georgia (see pp. 663-666). A conversation with Dwight Lee is always fruitful.

Packaging counts. This maxim of marketing applies to ideas as well as goods and services. As F.A. Hayek pointed out, there is a confusion of language in political thought. People of different political and philosophical perspectives often use merit words (words that a psychologist would say have positive affect) like rights and freedom to sell their very different, incompatible points of view. When classical liberals try to expose what they consider the interventionists’ misuse of such merit words, they get caught in a semantic trap that makes their arguments harder to sell. In this essay I discuss such a semantic trap and recommend a way to avoid it.

Negative and Positive Rights

Rights is definitely a merit word. People of all political persuasions talk about human rights and alleged trespasses against them. But what are they? Here is how a classical liberal might answer that question.

In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote about unalienable rights that all individuals have irrespective of government. These rights are logically prior to government. Government has no legitimate authority to add to or subtract from such rights. Its role is to protect them.

Following John Locke, Jefferson would say that if X is a human right it must apply to all individuals in exactly the same way. Later, Immanuel Kant said that to be legitimate a right had to be generalizable to all humans. If Jones has a right, all other humans must logically have the same right. One cannot, without self-contradiction, claim a human right for himself and deny it to other humans. Moreover, it must be possible for all individuals to exercise the claimed right simultaneously without logical contradiction.

For example, is there any job-related human right in the Jeffersonian sense? Yes. It is the right of all individuals to offer to buy or sell labor services at any terms they choose. Jones has a right to offer to sell his labor services, or buy the services of others, at any terms he likes. So, too, does Smith. We all do. Those to whom we extend our offers are free to reject them. In exercising this right we impose no duty to undertake any positive action on any other person.

Political philosophers often call this a negative right because the only duty imposed on others thereby is a duty to refrain from interfering with the person exercising the right (e.g., to refrain from preventing others from making job offers). Smith has no duty to do anything under Jones’s rights claim in this sense; rather, he has a duty not to do something.

Interventionists typically assert that people have rights in the sense of entitlement to the means to fulfill their wants. They assert that Jones and Smith have a right to a job, a right to an education, a right to health care, or a right to food. At the 1994 U.N. conference in Cairo on population every person was even granted the right to a satisfying and safe sex life.

Suppose Jones claims a right to a job. If that claim means that Jones will be employed anytime he wishes to be (on whatever terms he wishes?), there must be some other person, perhaps Smith, who has the duty to provide the job. But, then, Smith does not have the same right. Jones’s right is to be employed, Smith’s right is to provide the job. Political philosophers often refer to such a claim by Jones as a positive rights claim because Jones’s claimed right creates a duty for Smith to undertake some positive action that he may not want to undertake.

Classical liberals argue that positive rights are contradictory because they are not generalizable. They cannot be legitimate human rights because not all humans can exercise them in the same sense at the same time. Jones’s positive rights claims necessarily deny the same rights claims to Smith. Classical liberal economists argue that only negative rights are consistent with the principles of voluntary exchange.

Now, what is wrong with this way of expressing the argument? Only the packaging. Classical liberals come out defending negative rights, while interventionists come out defending positive rights. To the man on the street positive usually means desirable, and negative usually means undesirable. This language handicaps the classical liberals’ argument and gives the advantage to the interventionists.

Negative and Positive Freedom

There is no word with more positive affect than freedom. Everyone is in favor of it; no one wants to appear to be arguing against it. Even the rulers of the former Soviet empire claimed to be in favor of freedom (e.g., freedom from hunger). But what is freedom? Here is how a classical liberal might answer that question.

Jones is free if he can pursue his goals, without interference from others, using whatever means are at his disposal, so long as he does not engage any other person in any involuntary exchange. Political philosophers often call this negative freedom because it requires (a) the absence of interference from others and (b) Jones to abstain from imposing involuntary exchange on others. Negative freedom is generalizable. We each can exercise a negative freedom without denying the freedom of others to do the same.

The freedoms guaranteed to Americans by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press—are all negative freedoms. We each can exercise free choice of religion without denying that freedom to others. Note, however, we are not entitled to join a religious organization that doesn’t want to accept us. We each can associate with any individuals or groups, but only so long as they are willing to associate with us. Exercising that freedom does not make it impossible for others to do the same. We each can say what we like without denying that same freedom to others. Note again, however, we may not force people to listen, or to provide us with a forum in which to speak. We each are free to try to assemble the necessary resources, by voluntary agreements with others, to publish a newspaper or a magazine. But we have no right to force people to provide those necessary resources or to purchase or read our publications.

Interventionists assert that Jones is free if he is able to do or obtain what he would like to do or obtain. This is freedom in the sense of power. A poor man is not free in this sense because he has, for example, insufficient means to live in the type of house he would like. Political philosophers often refer to this as positive freedom because its exercise requires the presence of means. Of course, if Jones lacks the necessary means, he can be free in this sense only if he has an entitlement to receive the means from others whether they like it or not. But then those others are not free because they must give up means which would empower them to do or obtain what they would like. Jones’s positive freedom can be guaranteed only by the loss of at least some of Smith’s positive freedom.

While classical liberals can rightly argue that freedom for Jones at the expense of freedom for Smith is not really human freedom, the language of the dispute gives the advantage to those who defend positive freedom.

An Alternative Vocabulary

The common characteristic of negative rights and negative freedom is that they can be generalized to all people without logical contradiction. All people can exercise them simultaneously. One person’s exercise of a negative right or a negative freedom does not diminish the ability of others to do exactly the same. Fellow economist Dwight Lee suggested to me that the language of public goods is particularly apt. One characteristic of a public good is nonrivalrous consumption. All parties may consume the benefits of the good simultaneously, and one person’s consumption does not diminish the consumption of others.

We recommend that classical liberals, philosophers as well as economists, who try to clarify the alternative definitions of rights and freedom henceforth substitute nonrivalrous for negative and rivalrous for positive. Nonrivalrous rights and freedom are those that can be exercised by all people simultaneously. One person’s exercise of them does not diminish the ability of anyone else to do the same. When anyone exercises rivalrous rights and freedom, he does so only by reducing the ability of others to do the same.

The man on the street understands rivalry and nonrivalry to mean exactly what we wish to convey in this discussion. At the very least our suggestion would remove the semantic advantage that interventionists have hitherto enjoyed.

  • Charles Baird is a professor of economics emeritus at California State University at East Bay.

    He specializes in the law and economics of labor relations, a subject on which he has published several articles in refereed journals and numerous shorter pieces with FEE.