It is a happy coincidence that it is on Bastille Day that I publish my first post on this blog. It is now 222 years to the day since French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in Paris, beginning a revolution that would (after a few years) result in France becoming Europe’s second great liberal society. It is somewhat unfortunate that those two liberal societies then spent the next two decades killing each other. Nevertheless, the French Revolution contributed greatly to the development of modern concepts of human rights.
As someone who has always believed in the concept of human rights, I have in recent years been surprised by my own discomfort whenever I hear them discussed in public fora.
It is only recently that I’ve realised the source of my unease. It has dawned on me that, while I believe passionately in the rights of individuals not to be unjustly molested by the state, I do not believe in any fundamental right on the part of an individual to be provided with goods or services by the state. The former concept is a negative right, the latter a positive right.
The concept of negative rights (not that they were phrased as such at the time) was a hugely important milestone in the development of a free society, whereas I suspect the only important contribution of positive rights was to the development of a socialist welfare state.
Negative rights have formed part of the foundation of any successful, open society since ancient Greece. Roman society, even after the fall of the republic and the rise of the emperors, was noted for the negative rights enjoyed by its citizens, while the resurgence of the negative rights of the nobility, as represented by the Magna Carta, marked the beginning of the rise of English liberty.
The problem with positive rights for individuals is that they actually represent obligations for everyone else. If all members of a society have a positive right to “adequate” housing, for instance, regardless of any productive contribution to society that might be rewarded with a wage with which they can purchase accommodation, then that right in fact becomes an obligation on the part of productive members of society to provide them with housing.
State provision or subsidisation of certain goods may be sound economic or social policy. But by categorising those goods as rights, the recipient is thereby relieved of any implied obligation to feel any sense of gratitude at what is, in effect, compulsory charity. The least productive members of a modern, moderately affluent society, now believe themselves possessed of positive rights to goods and services far beyond the reach of kings and emperors for all but the last century – goods and services that thereby become, even for a modern economy, a hugely expensive obligation for the rest of society. And all this without any suggestion that the recipients should feel anything other than envy and resentment toward those whose taxes make these ‘rights’ possible.