Progressives have for some time argued that the notion of a negative right is too narrow. A more expansive notion of a right — a positive entitlement right — is appropriate in the case of health care. Economic progress and wealth allows, indeed, requires that all have health services. This implies government should seize by force the legitimately held property of some — that is tax them — to pay the medical bills of others.
Note that by definition positive entitlement rights imply that someone else’s right — a private property right — must be violated. A “right” that by nature takes away another “right” is in my humble opinion better called something else. I propose calling it an entitlement — and insist it not be confused with genuine rights.
Moreover, unlike the “negative” rights of classical liberals the “positive” rights of progressive can hardly be seen as God-given or natural. If one asserts a “right” to health care what does that mean? To any conceivable health-care treatment? Here the progressive must equivocate and assert that the actual practice of the “right” must be limited by political constraints. This is at odds with the notion of rights being inalienable as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
To a classical liberal, the rights to worship God as an Anglican or as a Wiccan or to purchase medical services are never legitimately subject to political compromise. One’s ability to pay for a cathedral, a pine grove or a cancer treatment probably will be.
So-called positive rights are an awkward and unwieldy construct. In my opinion it is better to dispense with them. Defending fellow citizens true rights — the rights to free speech, to freedom of worship, to private property, to engage in free exchange — are matters of justice. Entitlements are not rights at all but rather, at best, matters of mercy.
Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at email@example.com.