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The Fallacy of Positive Rights

The entitlement mindset is poisoning a generation and ruining our economy.

by
Stephen Gutowski

Bio

February 26, 2009 - 12:45 am

I know it’s not fashionable to worry in the hopeful times we now find ourselves in. And I know it’s not proper to worry when you’re only 22. And I know that when 22-year-olds living in the time of change worry, they are supposed to worry about midterms or finals — and believe me I do. But there is something larger that worries me: positive rights.

Positive rights are the greatest fallacy affecting this country today and for well into the future. Their entrenchment in my generation’s culture has handicapped us more than any recession has or ever could. The idea of positive rights effectively turns selfish envy for the possessions of others into mere desire for your rights to be upheld. But, on more practical terms, it is the programs they directly lead to that are perhaps the clearest example of the dangers of this attitude.

The Heritage Foundation has estimated that Medicare and Social Security alone will cost us $42.9 trillion more than we have budgeted for them over the next 75 years. And that’s just the unfunded commitments of two programs which have developed directly out of a positive rights mentality. There are dozens, if not hundreds, more programs and trillions upon trillions of dollars tied up in them.

So, now you see the problems with positive rights, but what exactly are they anyway? What is the concept behind them? Well, when I say “positive rights” I mean the idea that I have an undeniable right to take from you that which I have not earned. It is the idea that I, just by virtue of being born, am entitled to something that you have rightfully earned. I don’t need to work for these things. I don’t need to rely on your compassion or sympathy for these things. I simply deserve them because it is my right.

I’m here to say what is rarely said. Neither you nor I have an undeniable or unalienable right to take something from somebody else. We have no right to take what is not ours. This principle extends to all things, even water and food. We are born with no inherent right to someone else’s water or food no matter how little we have or how much they have.

I understand that seems like an extreme or even radical thing to say, but once we examine the issue closer it will become obvious that common sense and even social attitudes dictate this conclusion. Take, for example, one of our most revered practices, charity.

Charity is taking from what you have rightfully earned and giving it to those in need. It is considered to be a noble or selfless act done out of concern for others. An act of charity is worthy of commendation. However, in a “positive rights” framework there is no such thing as charity.

If a person has an irrefutable right to something from you, then it is by no means a noble act to give it to them. Think of it this way: Are we grateful when our right to free speech is not violated? Do we thank the government when it doesn’t impose restrictions on our right to freely exercise our chosen faiths? Do we pat others on the back for not murdering us?

Of course not. We fully and rightfully expect these things to be done because they are appropriate. In fact, the violation of these rights is just cause for anger, protest, and in extreme cases revolution. For this reason it is simply absurd to extend right-hood to positive rights.

But this isn’t a call to end all social welfare programs. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is a call for the proper approach to government assistance. Instead of the absurd positive rights approach, we need one of responsibility. I shouldn’t get food or shelter from others because I have a right to them, but rather because it’s the responsible thing for them to do. The government shouldn’t give me welfare or food stamps because I have a right to them, but rather because it is irresponsible for a government to let its citizens starve or go homeless.

But if the outcome is the same in the two approaches, then what’s the point in making a distinction anyway? Well, besides the fact that you always want to carry a correct political and philosophical outlook, the outcome really isn’t the same. Yes, those who buy into the fallacy of positive rights and those who don’t want to help those unable to help themselves. However, those who reject positive rights are looking for the best and most practical way to provide assistance.

A proper attitude towards providing relief for those in need lends itself to flexibility and knocks the bloated, gargantuan, and ineffective entitlement programs we are saddled with off of their pedestals. It smashes the stone tablets they’ve been engraved on for far too long. By doing so it opens us up to compromise on how to fix our monolithic yet utterly defunct aid programs. It lets us make minor changes like, say, private savings accounts in Social Security, without being utterly crucified.

Perhaps with enough education my generation can fully realize the fallacy of “positive rights.” I’ll do my best to make that happen. Time will tell.

Stephen Gutowski is the founder and editor of The College Politico.
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