Saturday, September 16, 2006

Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part I

Negative rights -- one's free enjoyment of life, liberty, and property as long as one does no harm to others -- are for all, in a regime that honors and protects such rights. With negative rights there is no involuntary taking from some to give to others, except to underwrite those state functions (justice and defense) that protect negative rights. (As for the necessity and inevitability of the state, read this, this, and the posts linked to therein.)

Postive rights, on the other hand, are assigned selectively by a regime that takes from some and gives to others, not just to provide for justice and defense but also to dispense "social justice" to those who are deemed "deserving" of it. How much the "donees" receive from the "donors" depends only on the dictates of those who are in charge of the regime.

Joe Miller (Bellum et Mores) supports positive rights:

. . . I still hold on to one core insight of liberalism: respect for autonomy means more than just non-interference. I can have all sorts of freedoms from various things, but those freedoms don't mean a damn thing if I'm too cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated to exercise them. And I remain convinced that, at least for right now, the only way to ensure that everyone has the shelter, medicine, food, education, and access needed to enjoy his/her freedom is through some form of redistribution. Insisting that you redistribute part of your wealth is no more a violation of your autonomy than is insisting that you refrain from hitting me in the nose. Both hitting me in the nose and refusing to help those too poor to exercise their freedoms are violations of autonomy.

Joe is far from alone in his views, of course. His co-believers are legion. Consider, for example, George Lakoff (about whom I have written here). Lakoff, too, is a proponent of positive rights, which he propounds in Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. Anthony Dick, writing at NRO Online, reviews Lakoff's book:

“Freedom is being able to achieve purposes,” [Lakoff] writes, “either because nothing is stopping you or because you have the requisite capacities, or both.” He elaborates with a barrage of italics: “Freedom is the freedom to go as far as you can in life, to get what you want in life, or to achieve what you can in life.” This, he explains, means that freedom has a significant positive component: “Freedom requires not just the absence of impediments to motion but also the presence of access. . . . Freedom may thus require creating access, which may involve building.” What Lakoff is describing, in other words, is a type of “positive freedom,” in the sense that it requires the provision of certain goods and services to citizens to ensure that they have the capacity to achieve their goals. On this view, you aren’t “free” unless you have been provided with what you need in order to be successful. . . .

Lakoff’s conception of freedom is thus in direct conflict with that of the Founders. When government seeks to provide entitlements for some in the name of “positive freedom,” it must necessarily interfere in the lives of others. This is because all government action is predicated on taxation and coercion, which by definition entail infringements on liberty. The state can’t give a welfare check to one person without taking money from someone else; it can’t fund a Social Security system without forcing people to pay into it.

People who don’t have food or health care or education have not been deprived of freedom. What they lack is not freedom but material goods and services. This is a matter of vocabulary, not ideology. The court of common word usage simply rejects Lakoff’s claim that being free means having the capacity to achieve one’s aims.

Roger Scruton, in the "Philosophical Appendix" of his The Meaning of Conservatism, says this:

What, then, is meant by the 'freedom of the individual'? I shall distinguish two kinds of liberal answer to this question, which I shall call, respectively, 'desire based' and 'autonomy based' liberalism. The first argues that people are free to the extent that they can satisfy thier desires. The modality of ths 'can' is, of course, a major problem. More importantly, however, such an answer implies nothing about the value of freedom, and to take it as the basis for political theory is to risk the most absurd conclusions. By this criterion the citizens of Huxley's Brave New World offer a paradigm of freedom: for they live in a world designed expressly for the gratification of their every wish. A desire-based liberalism could justify the most abject slavery -- provided only that the slaves are induced, by whatever method, to desire their own condition.

Joe's formulation could be dismissed simply by noting -- as does Anthony Dick -- the contradiction inherent in the concept of positive rights. It is simply illogical to say that "Insisting that you redistribute part of your wealth is no . . . violation of your autonomy." Such insistence, at the behest of the state, can be nothing other than a violation of "your autonomy," that is, the autonomy of the person whose wealth (or income) is being redistributed. Joe's formulation also could be dismissed simply by noting -- as Roger Scruton suggests -- that an agenda of positive rights means that the state can enslave (or at least enthrall) its subjects by dictating the conditions of their existence.

But I will not simply dismiss Joe's formulation of positive rights with those two observations, acute as they may be. Joe's formulation demands a more thorough response because it challenges the emotions in its appeal to the "cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated." I will make that more thorough response in Part II, where I will make the connection between positive rights and "cosmic justice," upon which I have touched here.