Thursday, November 25, 2010

Positive v. Negative Rights

I know... I'm supposed to do a post re: the first chapter of MES. I'll get to it. Many things going on in my head these days.

The purpose of this post is to begin exploring an idea that popped into my head. My proposition is this: a positive right to resources, by its nature, cannot logically exist. In a world of scarce resources, any statement of a positive right must necessarily violate another's negative right. Because negative rights are granted by the Creator (or creator - see earlier discussion esp. Troy Camplin's contribution) and therefore cannot be legitimately violated, a positive right cannot exist.

The above is a syllogism, but I believe I must set about proving the proposition that a positive right to resources violates a negative right. The primary negative right, from which all other negative rights follow, is the property right. This may sound odd, but it must be understood that any person's primary property is the person (body). You own your body and no entity can violate your body legitimately. That is, any violation of a person's body, that is an act against the body without consent, is necessarily a criminal act. From this basic premise flow all negative rights.

That a person can own land flows then from the fact that you own your body and therefore your labor (work). We own land by being the first to work the land - note that this is different from staking a claim. Note this also goes against the idea of state land, or national borders. And, yes, the state has no right to expropriate land from the Indians.

Now, let's take a simple example to begin with, since I don't want to write a journal article here. An example of a commonly asserted positive right these days is the right to a job. In other words, person X has the right to get paid to do some work. Let's break it down further, and assume everyone is the world is self-employed. That same statement under these circumstances would read: I have a right to sell the fruits of my labor to you. That might sound okay, but only because one typically tosses an extra word in there: I have a right to try to sell the fruits of my labor to you. Say I grow pumpkins - I have no right to force you to buy my pumpkins, but I have every right to offer them to you in exchange for something you have (like other goods, or money, or whatever).

Now, let's say you come up to me and offer to help work my land in exchange for some pumpkins. A positive right to a job would state that you can force me to employ you. But this violates my negative right to refuse to exchange with you. My right to exchange only with those I want, and who also want to exchange with me, is a natural outflow from my property right. If your labor isn't worth a pumpkin to me, you have no right to compel me to give you pumpkins in exchange for your labor.

That's only one example, but let's put the challenge out there: what positive right to resources can you come up with that isn't a violation of someone's negative rights?


  1. I'm sure these aren't perfect examples, but here goes. I have the right to clean air and water, especially while residing on my personal property. This right may or may not exist driving down a public road or walking on the sidewalk in a big city. So, let's confine the discussion to personal property.

    My neighbor has the right to use his property as he wishes, so long as his "externalities" remain on his property. During the winter, my neighbor burns wood or coal for heat. The smoke from his chimney drifts onto my property, and he is therefore committing trespass.

    Through negotiation, we can arrive at some optimal level of pollution and reimbursement for damages (Coase Theorem, if I'm applying this correctly). But in the absence of any negotiation, does my right to clean air trump my neighbors right to heat?

  2. How high up above your land do you rights extend? In other words, are you actually inhaling the smoke from the fire? Around here, it seems the smoke from everyones' chimneys goes (more or less) straight up. Who owns the air up there?

    Now there is some argument for pollutants trespassing on your property. I believe it was W. Block who discussed the importance of property rights and pollution. Prior to tort reform in the 1850s (or so) a person could sue a firm for getting schmutz on their laundry because of (say) smoke stack emissions. It's hard to prove, but without said tort reform who knows where environmental forensics might be today?

    Thus it remains an empirical question - if the smoke from my fire has actually damaged you then there does seem to be an actionable consequence here. I also think there's an error term here. Yeah, the smoke crosses property lines, but does it really cause any damage?