“Positive rights” incompatible with constitutional government

Geoffrey Lawrence

In the ongoing debate over health care reform, I continue to hear pundits on the left claim that health care is a right. Yet, this notion that government exists to guarantee “positive rights” such as free health care completely misunderstands the development of constitutional government.

The entire notion of constitutional government can be traced to John Locke’s Second Treatise. Here it is explained that all men are endowed with a set of natural rights which include: life, liberty and property. In order to protect those rights, civilized individuals agree to a “social contract” in order to form a government whose primary purpose is to protect the rights of individuals. This is done by empowering government to restrain the actions of others (such as theft, physical violence, etc.) that might directly infringe on your own natural rights. Hence, the expression “You’re rights end where someone else’s begin.”

The primary problem with the concept of “positive rights” is that the purpose of government changes from protecting the natural rights of individuals to actively infringing upon those rights. Any requirement for government to provide individuals with a certain amount of goods means that those goods must first be confiscated from society – which is a limit on the natural right to control property. To be fair, the concept of absolute control over property is limited to some extent even in a classical liberal system because taxes are taken to support the functioning of government. However, this is completely different because that form of taxation funds a government that protects individuals’ rights, including the rights over the individual’s remaining property, and is implicit in the social contract.

“Positive rights” further violate the natural right of liberty because they limit the individual’s choices about how to consume his own productivity. The notion of universal health care is a perfect example. Health care is in no case “free” and, hence, if the government is to require that it be provided for all individuals, then the government is essentially depriving the individual’s freedom of choice. More spending on health insurance means fewer resources available to the individual for food, housing and other items.

While the ideal of “free stuff” for everyone sounds nice, the reality is that we live in a world constrained by limited resources and more of one thing means less of another. Some individuals may value better housing or a healthier and more varied diet more than gaining additional health coverage from their insurance provider. While the notion of “no risk” sounds nice, it is not realistic. There is always risk in life. Yet, when the government dictates exactly how an individual’s income should be spent, it deprives that individual of his right to liberty because he can no longer choose for himself what lifestyle he will lead.

The notion of “positive rights” implies that one is entitled to something that does not exist in nature. Health care is not naturally sitting in the woods for everyone to take. Compelling health care means compelling doctors and other health workers as well as the mass of society who would be required to pay for such an endeavor. Natural rights, however, do exist in nature and do not disappear unless they are taken away by some form of despotic government.

Recognizing these inconsistencies, there is no way that a “positive right” can be considered a constitutional right because it would undermine the very rights which a constitution is crafted to protect. Perhaps if those who advocate for such ideological shifts in the function of government were to think more deeply into the philosophical nature of human existence they would see that they are not laying the roots for freedom, but for tyranny.

Geoffrey Lawrence

Geoffrey Lawrence

Director of Research

Geoffrey Lawrence is director of research at Nevada Policy.

Lawrence has broad experience as a financial executive in the public and private sectors and as a think tank analyst. Lawrence has been Chief Financial Officer of several growth-stage and publicly traded manufacturing companies and managed all financial reporting, internal control, and external compliance efforts with regulatory agencies including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.  Lawrence has also served as the senior appointee to the Nevada State Controller’s Office, where he oversaw the state’s external financial reporting, covering nearly $10 billion in annual transactions. During each year of Lawrence’s tenure, the state received the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting Award from the Government Finance Officers’ Association.

From 2008 to 2014, Lawrence was director of research and legislative affairs at Nevada Policy and helped the institute develop its platform of ideas to advance and defend a free society.  Lawrence has also written for the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, with particular expertise in state budgets and labor economics.  He was delighted at the opportunity to return to Nevada Policy in 2022 while concurrently serving as research director at the Reason Foundation.

Lawrence holds an M.A. in international economics from American University in Washington, D.C., an M.S. and a B.S. in accounting from Western Governors University, and a B.A. in international relations from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.  He lives in Las Vegas with his beautiful wife, Jenna, and their two kids, Carson Hayek and Sage Aynne.