The distinction between Rights and Freedoms.

Now for the important matter of the distinction between rights and freedoms. Of late, there has been a proliferation of rights. There’s the right to information, right to employment, right to food, right to education, and so on. Somehow people start thinking that the expansion of rights enhances freedom but in fact it is the opposite: the expansion of rights actually reduces our freedom.

To make the idea concrete let’s take an example. What is the “right to education” as it is being applied in India? If means that someone claiming that right is entitled to education without having to pay for it. But since education is not something that drops out of the skies for free, someone has to pay for it. Thus one person’s right to getting “free” education imposes a corresponding burden on another — a burden imposed by the government through coercion. That is a reduction, not an enhancement, of freedom.

The more “rights” that the government confers on selected groups (minorities or this or that particular caste), the more it tramples on the freedoms of citizens. I am quite willing to support, to the extent that I am able, the education of those who are unfortunate enough to not be able to pay for themselves. I can be persuaded to lend a hand to help a fellow human being but I will resist with all my being any attempt to threaten me with violence if I refuse to be robbed, regardless of what the robber intends to do with the money.

I am generous enough to always give money to people who are forced to beg because I have the empathy to understand that misfortune can strike anyone and I should do what I would have expected to be done to me if the roles had been reversed. But if someone demands — not ask but demand — that I give them money, generosity goes out the window, I get turned off and move on.

The recent expansion of rights that the government of India is imposing has nothing to do with social justice or fairness. It has to do with vote bank politics. It serves two major functions. First, by transferring income from one group to another, it gets the support of the latter group. More specifically, the non-poor are taxed for the benefit of the poor. This ensures the support of the poor in elections, and since the poor outnumber the non-poor, the deal sticks. The non-poor often don’t fully understand that they are being robbed (thanks to the propaganda machine called “education” under government control) and generally don’t bother voting anyway.

The second function of the transfer through rights is that the people in government get to handle the transfer with very sticky fingers. Right to employment essentially boils down to those in charge siphoning off billions from the flow that is meant for the millions.

There’s a nice feedback loop — a positive feedback — in this expansion of rights. The rights are meant to help those who are in poverty. But the schemes deepen poverty. So the number of the poor increases. That means more votes for those who propose to enlarge the set of rights. Which increases poverty and the number of the poor, and so on. Round and round we go in the bowl and down the tubes. That, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is what is going on in India.

The other day I was talking to a friend and explaining the distinction between negative rights, positive rights, and freedom. After about a half hour, he got the idea. A light bulb went off for me as well. I realized that I generally assume that everyone who is even somewhat educated knows these distinctions. But that assumption is wrong. People don’t have the time to sit and think about these things because they have other urgent matters to attend to. So I am starting a campaign to tell people about that. Here’s a short video. But be warned that even though the video is short, the matter needs quite a bit of pondering. The speaker is Prof Aeon Skoble of Bridgewater State University. Following the video, I quote the entire transcript because it should be read slowly. But wait, there’s more after the transcript.

The transcript from

Positive Rights vs. Negative Rights

One reason there’s a lot of confusion about rights from both liberals and conservatives is that there are different sorts of rights. Besides the distinction between legal and moral rights, we also need to distinguish the different sorts of claims the assertion of a right makes. Philosophers generally use the expressions negative rights and positive rights to express these distinctions. Now there’s nothing evaluative about these terms. It’s not negative in a bad way. These are precise terms that philosophers use to make an important distinction. So let’s see if we can explore it.

Consider this claim: I have the right to go to the store and get a lottery ticket. Let’s begin with what this doesn’t mean. First of all, it doesn’t mean that I have an obligation to buy a lottery ticket. It’s up to me. No one should be forcing me to buy one, but also no one should be forcing me not to buy one. Second of all it doesn’t mean that the store clerk has any obligation to give me one. I’ll have to pay for it, which is shorthand for making a trade.

This works whether we’re talking about lottery tickets, milk, potato chips, coffee, beef. My right to get these things is not an obligation to get them, and neither is it a warrant to be given them. My right to get these things means that no one ought to stop me from making trades through which I can acquire them. That’s a little different from, say, when you get arrested and are informed that you have the right to an attorney. You know how they say it from TV. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. The store is under no obligation to provide me with a steak if I can’t afford one, but the folks who arrested me are obliged to provide me with an attorney if I cannot afford one. So these are different kinds of rights.

One way to get clear on this distinction is to think about the relationship between rights and duties. If Smith has a right then Jones has a duty. Understanding what different kinds of duties Jones might have is one way to understand what kinds of rights Smith might have. We’ll call negative rights the kind of rights which impose on others a negative duty, a duty not to do anything, a duty of noninterference. If I have a right of this sort all you have to do to respect that right is refrain from blocking me. Negative rights are sometimes called liberties.

Now we’ll call positive rights the kind of rights which impose on others a positive duty, a duty to provide or act in a certain way. If I have a right of this sort, you respect it by complying. Positive rights are also sometimes called entitlements. So my right to a lottery ticket or a steak is a negative right. No one can properly interfere with my efforts to acquire these through trade. Freedom of speech is another example of a negative right. I cannot be arrested for speaking out. The right of criminal suspects to an attorney is a positive right. One will be provided. One interesting feature of negative rights is that they don’t conflict and we can all respect everyone else’s liberties all the time. We simply have to refrain from using force to make people do our bidding.

Positive rights can conflict and in a couple of ways. One way they can conflict is scarcity. If there are 10 public defenders and 100 people get arrested, they can’t all have their right to an attorney satisfied equally. This sort of conflict can sometimes help us understand which claims are legitimate. Your property rights give you exclusive use of a resource so others can’t claim a right to vacation in your yard, at least not without your permission.

The other source of conflict raises a more troubling issue. Since positive rights create duties on others to act or provide, doesn’t that represent a violation of their negative rights, their liberty? It depends. Some positive rights are created by a contractual relationship. Since I’m a member of AAA, I have a positive right to towing services if my car breaks down. Nonmembers have a negative right to seek towing services, but I am actually entitled to receive them. That doesn’t violate anyone’s negative rights, though, because the relationship is entirely consensual and defined by a contract. If I claimed I had a positive right to a steak, someone would have an obligation to give me one, not as a trade but as a nonconsensual service. That would violate their liberty, making them involuntarily subservient to me. This suggests that if we’re free and equal by nature, any positive rights would have to be grounded in consensual arrangements.

Unfortunately, for a lot of so called positive rights this just isn’t the case.

Let’s continue with the topic. Wiki usually does a good job but in this case, I find the article on Negative and Positive Rights somewhat lacking. But I found a site[1] that does a sweet job of explaining the distinction, “What are Rights“.

What are Rights?

There are two types of right. Negative rights and Positive rights.

Negative rights

Put simply a negative right is the right to be left alone. Specifically it is the right to think and act free from the coercive force of others. Free from muggers, fraudsters and restrictive laws and taxes. A negative right is an absolute. You are either free from the above or you are not. even the slightest violation breaks this right. Imagine that a man stops you in the street once a week and forces you to stand still for one minute – hardly a life changing violation – yet your right to be free of the coercion of others is being broken. The degree to which this right is violated changes from place to place but I know of no country where it is not routinely violated by the state.

Remember that a person cannot claim this right while violating the same in others. A mugger cannot claim a right to be left alone whilst mugging people.

The kind of society where this right is prevalent is a society whose government exists only to protect the individual from the force of others. The American Constitution and Bill of Rights are the closest examples – which, sadly, modern day America is abandoning daily.

Positive rights

These are rights to something. A right to food, to healthcare, to education – whatever. The reality of a positive right is that whatever the object of the right is (eg healthcare), it needs to be created before the ‘right’ can be fulfilled. This creates an obligation upon others to create it and it is the basis for slave societies and statist dictatorships. In the UK positive rights exist and each person who is taxed and restricted via legislation into providing the object of the right is working a proportion of his/her life as a slave. This may seem a bit extreme, but it isnt. Unless you agree entirely with your payment of every tax and everything the government then spends your money on, you are being forced to work for ends you have *not* given your consent to – just like a slave. Slavery was outlawed, but it crept back under the guise of the ‘public good’.

The reason most people tolerate, or even give apathetic support to it, is because they are not thinking about which principles are being abandoned and which of their own rights they are giving up by doing so. Many people find the costs of obeying restricitive laws and paying 50% in tax irritating but, amazingly, no more than that. “Its not all that bad!” They might say – I would suggest turning back the tide of controls and restrictions now before it is terribly bad – it has happened in other countries, however naively you might imagine “it cant happen here”. The answer is to ask, whenever some new scheme is proposed by the government, “at whose expense?” and you will find that the expense is your freedom.

I have highlighted only one bit in the above quote because it describes quite well the path India is on.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.


[1] This is from “Freedom in the UK“. I have not explored the site but I intend to.

Author: Atanu Dey


11 thoughts on “The distinction between Rights and Freedoms.”

  1. While generally agreeing with you, I must point out that one aspect of financing education must unfortunately be coercive on people who can afford it. Specifically, educating girls enough so they do not want to bear more than one child is everyone’s headache in India. If you do not take on that headache, your world, too, will be destroyed, and pretty soon. Like Pakistan holding a gun to its own head and demanding money, this is coercive. Just by transferring some not-so-precious bodily fluids, poor people can indeed hold everyone to ransom. The critical thing is (was?) to limit this ransom to women’s education. To let it balloon out to guaranteed employment, guaranteed food, guaranteed haaj pilgrimage subsidies, now that’s terminal stupidity.


  2. Suppose a person A has planned to buy food (because of his need to eat not just want) and he has freedom to go to any food vendor in his/her village.

    Now what if the seller, using his/her right to sell the products to whoever he/she wants, refuses to sell food to this person? The seller is using his negative rights. He cant be coerced to sell his/her products to anyone he/she doesnt want to sell.

    Suppose all the food vendors in the village do the same thing to person A. Everybody refuses to sell food. (may be caste discrimination or racial discrimination or something like that).

    While person A has the freedom and liberty to involve in trade, the negative rights of sellers’ cartel will make the liberties of person A meaningless.

    This is the classic case many give to enact positive rights. I try to tell them that if there is really such discrimination in that village, why would that person A stay in the village? He/She would have moved to different village where there is no discrimination. If person A was a visitor to that village and get discriminated against, then he/she will spread that word around that area for people to not go to that village. The one time suffering of person A need not be that fatal to the overall wellbeing of person A.

    For some reason many are not satisfied with my answer. Is the logic I give them correct? is there a better argument? or a better way to put it?

    Another question:

    Also can we extend the AAA analogy of positive rights and negative rights to public goods and services? Almost everybody pays taxes, so technically there are no non members of ‘AAA’ here. As everyone is a AAA member, there can only be membership category distinctions. Those who are premium members are entilted to more positive rights and those who are basic members are entilted to less positive rights. Will there still be any problem in terms of neo-slavery with such “number of positive rights depends on the amount of tax you pay” system?


  3. > Almost everybody pays taxes, so technically there are no non members of ‘AAA’ here.

    Rohith, unfortunately you are mistaken.
    The number of people who pay — say income tax — are a very small minority.
    Thus, in india you have a very simple loot equation: take taxes from a small minority and dole it out to a majority in exchange for votes.


  4. Every citizen in the country pays tax in some are the other way not only rich/so called non poor people and at the same time every citizen is benefited from the tax money not only poor people even the rich people also for e.g to maintain security of the country money is needed and government is using tax money only so both are benefiting.
    Then coming to recently proliferating rights it is the constitutional duty of the state(govt) to implement directive principles of state policies when state is capable of doing it and right to education is a one of the directive principle in that sense state is doing it’s duty so we are blaming the state for performing it’s duties,and another thing RTE is a universal right not for the selected groups and finally when someone is begging you and you are giving money that is not empathy and in our country where poor outnumber non poor begging formula will not work because one rich person will be begged by minimum 10 poor then?? so government is doing its best to redistribute the tax money not only for the poor but also to RICH/NON POOR ALSO


  5. @Sony: a bit naive, are we? The fact is that only 33 million people out of our 1.2 billion pay taxes, per official records. With such an abysmal ratio, any sort of positive right adds a huge burden to the taxpayer, i.e., the common wage earner like you and me.

    We can talk ad infinitum about constitutional duties and so on, but the fact is that we have ministers and leaders whose only aim is to rob the country blind and blame us for it.

    Let me ask you a few simple questions – even after 60+ years of independence from the “evil British”, why is our literacy rate so bad, why is our public infrastructure so backward, why do we still have caste and religion based politics, why is the Indian rupee forever losing value (1US$ = 55.6 INR today) and why are we accelerating full speed towards the 18th century?

    Prof Skoble’s talk gives us a context, and any sort of positive right in India can only be a means to exploit and loot the taxpayer while people like Sharad Pawar or Chidambaram or their Italian controller queen stash away more and more dollars into their Swiss, Hong Kong or Singapore bank accounts. Facts have proven this time and again over the past decade. I dare you to show me even one instance that proves otherwise.


  6. @AG The regime of tax you refer to, affects the country as a system too, does it not?

    Instead of causing progressive improvement in the system, it fosters the kind of un-accountability and subterfuge that destroys public wealth and usurps society’s peace of mind. The stench and squalour of the country’s biggest point of tax-collection, Mumbai, will serve as our most head-smacking evidence of the nature of such decay.

    And this, in my opinion, is the real tax – a terrible price to be paid not just by the minority of tax-payers, by everyone.


  7. @shankar

    Only 33 million people are paying taxes is a wrong thing what is correct is only 33 million people are paying INCOME TAX which is one of the DIRECT TAX but we also have indirect taxes which are paid by every citizen(1.2 billion) in the form of service tax,excise duty,customs duty,vat, e.c.t so every citizen is contributing to the tax money even poorest of the poor also

    ya our literacy rate is very low that’s why government is trying to improve it through right to education and government needs money for that and government is not having golden goose which gives money,so it has to tax people and we people are not willing to pay taxes but we are ready to blame the government saying that government is not doing anything we want everyone else to be perfect but when it comes to our turn then it is ………

    Indian currency value is decreasing it is not because of internal reasons(Lack of governments proper control) it is purely because of external reason i.e euro zone crisis, Indian goods are mainly exported to european countries but because of their crisis exports came down but not imports so inevitable for the fall of rupee value

    I agree that many of our politicians are corrupt but there are many ways through which they can be made accountable e.g RTI so it is our duty to make them accountable to us rather than shouting our politician are corrupt corrupt


  8. @sony — how will a declared “right to education” help if the density of competent teachers in the population keeps decreasing? How will “right to information” help if the murder of information seekers is not immediately investigated and punished? How will “right to employment” help if the people thus employed have little or no marketable skills? How will “right to food” help if the monsoon fails and there is no one to build and run reliable food storage? Just by asserting one negative right (“you shall not have more than one child”) in 1950, India might have been almost civilized by now. But hey, we are a democracy, unlike China. “Right to squalor”, anyone?


  9. Very nice article.
    Well I have this idea that there are no rights, just duties.Because for every right you define for someone you have to assign someone else a duty.Perhaps you do realize this is what our ancient rishis did when they created a template of dharma(here used in sense of duty) for each person/group/social institution to be followed.As long as everyone followed their dharma automatically others get their rights.As far is freedom is concerned,it has to be explored within/after fulfilling one’s own dharma.May be not a perfect mechanism but could be improved upon.


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