Negative vs. Positive Rights: Fundamentals and Criticisms

Negative vs. Positive Rights: Fundamentals and Criticisms By  for Libertas Bella

The difference between negative vs positive rights is that one requires action while the other requires inaction. Negative rights are the requirements of someone else not to interfere in your ability to obtain something. Positive rights are a requirement of someone else to provide you with something.

You may hear negative rights referred to as “liberties,” and that’s because they are basic human and civil rights stating that no one can interfere with our right to obtain something through trade or bartering.

Positive rights are often called “entitlements” because they are things that someone must provide to us, whether we’ve earned them or not. We don’t have to do anything to obtain positive rights; they’re granted to us.

A great example would be a person’s individual right to purchase something from a store. Some might think this is a positive right, but it’s actually a negative right. You have the right to go to the store and purchase a meal, provided you can pay for that meal. As a result, it’s your negative right to ensure that no one interferes with that.

Other negative rights are:

  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of speech
  • Property rights

If you go there with money to pay for the meal, provide that money to the clerk, then the store worker must provide you with that meal.

A positive right refers to something that must be provided to you. For example, when you’re arrested, the police officer says:

“You have the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you.” 

That is a positive right. 

You have the right to an attorney whether you can afford one or not; they’re required to provide that to you. That would be an entitlement. Even though you’ve done something wrong (allegedly), they are required to provide you with an attorney, which is a positive right.

There are many social and economic positive rights, as well. Housing, public education, national security, health care, social security, and certain standards of living are all positive rights. The government is required to provide you with these, even if you’re unable to provide them for yourself.

When we compare positive vs. negative rights, the negative right is not to be subjected to an action of another person. Meaning, you cannot coerce someone into providing you with something. A negative right only exists until someone negates it. You cannot force someone to provide something to you; your negative rights only exist as long as you can provide something yourself; it is not an entitlement but rather a liberty.

Positive rights, on the other hand, are subject to another person or group performing the action. To have a positive right, someone else must perform an action that is offering something to the situation. Where a negative right is requiring the person not to perform, a positive right requires them to perform.

Look at it this way:

A negative right forbids someone from committing and action against your rights.

A positive right obligates someone to act in accordance with your rights.

The distinction of positive and negative rights is practiced most prominently by Libertarians who believe that you can only create positive duties through the use of a contract. Many Liberal Democracies believe in negative rights, but they don’t all support positive rights. Regardless of each belief system, positive rights are usually guaranteed through laws.

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