Let’s talk about negative and positive rights.
Hang out in any kind of political discussion of a certain type and you’ll eventually hear about negative rights and positive rights. Put simply, a negative right is a right free from interference by an external force; a positive right compels action from an external source. Freedom of speech is a negative right, because it guarantees that you can speak without limitation. Right to legal counsel is a positive right, because it means somebody else has to do something on your behalf. Put another way, a negative right to life would read something like “Don’t kill anybody,” while a positive right to life would perhaps be “You have to do whatever you can to prevent anybody from dying.”
The traditional stance, usually assumed by classical liberals, modern Conservatives, and libertarians, is that negative rights are preferable to positive ones; this is because compulsion, except in the rarest cases, is unjustifiable. Healthcare usually gets caught up in this debate; it is often pointed out that medical services are necessarily limited, and that it’s impossible to force people to distribute limited services to an unlimited population.
With me so far? Pretty easy.
Here’s where The Rules come in. According to Rule #1, we all live in relationship to one another. As I said at the time, “Whether it’s the products we buy, the cars we drive, how we vote, or whether we pay our taxes, we are not alone. In this world, it’s impossible to swing your hand without hitting someone’s face, and that’s not just because of overpopulation–we’re all in this together.” My entire theory of Justice is predicated on a recognition of shared, global responsibility.
I don’t want to get too deep into theology here, but permit me a brief digression. In Genesis, we read about the creation of humanity, and from G-d’s mouth, we hear that “It is not good for man to be alone.” As a theology professor I had once told me, Genesis serves to ask several questions, one of which is “How do we relate?” To which the answer is “Quite well, thanks.” Anyway–all connected, no man is an island, etc.
But if we accept that we’re all related, something happens: we realize that at a certain point, freedom is zero-sum. Consider one of my favorite examples, a speed limit in a school zone. Two women–one driving a Maserati, another taking her daughter to school–have competing and mutually exclusive negative rights in this scenario. The first, to drive as fast as she wants; the second, to survive her trip to school.
The rights are inversely proportional–the more freedom the first woman has, the less the second has, and vice versa. Maximizing the safety of the second woman (and, we assume, all the other parents taking their children to school) requires the first woman acknowledging the positive right that the parents have to safety.
This applies to our global, interconnected existence. Our freedom to drive a gas guzzling, high emission SUV limits the freedom of a farmer half a world away to grow a sustainable crop. There are always winners and losers. The key is Fairness–not taking any actions that affect any other people in a way that you wouldn’t accept the converse.
All of this means that the common, popular way of considering positive and negative rights is exactly backwards. It’s more fashionable, in many circles, to assert the primacy of negative rights, but that’s the wrong way to pursue positive outcomes. Our global society demands recognition that we have to accept limits on our behavior.
An Uncomfortable Realization
Something that’s alive in this entire endeavor is the notion of Power. It generally goes unmentioned, but when I talk about Liberty & Fairness, that’s really what I mean–power imbalances. That’s all Fairness is, really. But it’s not just the existence of power imbalances, it’s the exercise thereof, but not just the exercise–a teacher and a student have a power imbalance –it’s the unfair expression of power, the unjust, power to the benefit of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. That’s the key, what’s really captured in Rule #1: We Are In This Together. That sort of selfishness–not merely exploiting your position to your own benefit but exploiting your position at the cost of someone else–might be a natural impulse, but it is antithetical to the development of a functioning society. Put another way, it is rational for an actor to pursue their ends at the expense of others. But given that we observe better outcomes through cooperation, what is rational for the individual is irrational for the Tribe.
This provokes an uncomfortable truth, if we let it, because if you’re reading this, then you’re one of the wealthiest human beings that has ever existed in the history of the planet. You have advantages that would seem downright sorcerous not just to people living 100 years ago, but people living today. The unequal distribution of resources isn’t an unknown phenomenon, but it’s something we don’t think about that often, if we can help it, along with the fact, the ugly truth that our comfortable lives are built on the backs of exploited labor. Whether it’s a Bolivian peasant plucking coffee cherries, an overworked Chinese woman building a smartphone, an unpaid prison laborer cleaning up the side of the road, our lives touch, and our touched by, thousands of other hands.
Damn it, this is an indictment of capitalism, isn’t it?
Look, I value intellectual honesty almost above all else. And I don’t see how one can be intellectually honest about Fairness & Justice (at least, as I’ve outlined them) and accept current global markets as they are. The bottom line is this: based on the rules I made, the game we’re playing is unfair. If all of this is What I Believe, and if I acknowledge that participation in this system implies complicity, then I have to decide if I’m comfortable with my own hypocrisy or if I’m going to do something about it.