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  • Josh Lewis

Episode 27 - What's so Positive about Negative Rights?

Updated: May 30, 2020

Is healthcare a right or a privilege? As the Democratic party swings Left, more and more Americans—Millennials in particular—are growing comfortable with the idea that we have a right to healthcare. Not to mention free education, food, shelter, and a host of other things.

But before we can even hope to have a productive conversation about these things, we must first address some fundamentals: What is a right? How do rights differ from privileges? Where do rights come from? What is the basis of a right?

Traditional conservatism has long distinguished between what we might call negative rights and positive rights. In its most basic form, a negative right is the right to enjoy things that are yours by virtue of you being born or earning property. They are called “negative”, not because they are somehow pessimistic, but because no one has to do anything for you to enjoy these rights. Your right to exist and do what you will with the things you’ve earned and possess requires no government bureau. Nothing is required of anyone save that we leave each other well enough alone.

A positive right, on the other hand, is a claim to something such as access to healthcare, food, or shelter. A positive right requires that someone give you something. Your “right” to healthcare means someone else must pay for your healthcare and provide you whatever services your “right” entitles you to.

But what is the basis for our rights? Do negative and positive rights share the same basis and are they equally valid? Are they simply favors doled out by a benevolent government that wishes its citizens to enjoy good things? What happens if negative and positive rights conflict? Who should win out? And who gets to decide? Joining Josh once more is frequent Saving Elephants guest Bob Burch to discuss these very important issues.

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