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 LearnLiberty.org:
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 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.
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.
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.
 This is from “Freedom in the UK“. I have not explored the site but I intend to.