Positive rights are privilidges that are claimed to be rights. A positive right is one that requires another entity to do something in order to fulfill the right. A good example is the right to eat. You have the right to eat. You don't have the right to food. The second requires someone else to provide you with food. The maxim that "positive rights don't exist" means that a right isn't really a 'right' if it requires someone else to do something.

Positive rights are "freedoms to" instead of "freedoms from" (which are negative rights). Most liberal (and libertarian) thought is based on the notion of negative rights. Positive rights are the hallmark of civil society, and originate from Greek discussions of democracy. The most substantial positive right in Western democracies is the right to vote.

How important are economic resources to the value of civil and political rights?

For those that endorse them, inherent in the modern conception of human rights is the idea that no individual is born with any god-given or natural difference in status from anyone else. Almost as a logical extension of this, it is held that we all ought to have the ability of personal self-determination. It is with this as a starting point that liberal thinkers have promoted civil and political rights (or negative rights as they have been referred to here) as necessities. We are all born equal, as it says in the US Declaration of Independence, so things like discrimination on grounds of race or gender are unacceptable, and it would be unfair to stop a person from exercising their freedom of speech. However, what use is freedom of speech if you have no money to get your pamphlet printed? And what use is it to not be racially discriminated against in a job application if you have and can afford no education? Clearly, as an individual, some economic resources are needed, and no one, free market liberal, socialist or otherwise, could deny this. More under debate is whether economic resources such as education need to be guaranteed by the government as a right of its citizens in order for civil and political rights to have value, or whether those rights are enough on their own, and this is what we will discuss here. Perhaps with civil and political rights in place, we have all we justly need to pursue economic goods for ourselves? This would be the view of certain liberals, who feel that a pure free market, with a state that defended rights such as property rights but not economic ones, would be the best mechanism for allowing humans the self-determination that most of us favour. This is a flawed theory, and this essay will look at it alongside alternative arguments that include mainstream thinking from the UN as well as radical perspectives such as the Marxist one. These arguments illustrate that economic resources are essential - and need to be given as rights if the majority of civil and political rights are to be useful.

It is not that liberals and libertarians are not in favour of a world in which everyone has access to education and healthcare. It is these things, along with general material wealth and a reduction in poverty that they believe the policies they favour would promote. Gerald O'Driscoll, Kim Holmes and Melanie Kirkpatrick, three contemporary pro-free market thinkers, compile an index of economic freedom by country. Countries are assessed on a number of categories, and the ones that score highly are ones where government spending is low, ones that have low or non-existent minimum wage rates and ones that have strongly enforced property rights. We can see from this that it is civil and political ('negative') rights that the authors approve of, while they treat social and economic ('positive' or 'second generation') rights somewhat with disdain. The reason many liberals disapprove of those rights is that they do not see them as an extension of civil and political rights, but as a curtailment of them. An employer's 'right' to pay the going rate for labour he receives is damaged by a law that says he must pay a minimum wage, and when he is obliged to pay tax this is a limitation on his rights to property. So liberal thinkers, in cases like this, think that economic resources as guaranteed by the government do not add value to civil and political rights, but by limiting economic freedom actually take their value away. Oddly, O'Driscoll and the others believe that only if a government does not guarantee economic resources to its impoverished will economic resources come their way.

At the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, it's good news to learn that economic freedom is on the rise worldwide…

…If this trend continues, the world-wide growth in economic freedom will be measured by the increase in prosperity of more and more of the world's people. In future centuries, people may come to marvel over the concept of "poverty" and how some governments relegated their citizens to that awful state when they might instead have lifted them into prosperity.
The problem with this view is that it is based on a largely discredited theory of "trickle-down" economics, which states that as long as businesses are given the right to make money unhindered, their wealth will spread downwards through their employees and into the rest of the economy, and improve the conditions of the poorest. In fact, the consequence of such a policy is that the rich siphon economic resources away from the poor, who, from a foundation of poverty, have no opportunity to take advantage of their civil rights.

The liberal perspective is in many ways a direct opposite to the one held by Karl Marx, who believed political and civil rights existed largely to prevent the poor from getting hold of economic resources. Marx derided the initial liberal conception of human rights, feeling, as Geoffrey Robertson puts it, that they were founded "not on man as citizen, but man as bourgeois". He believed that the right to have one’s property protected by the law was simply a way of making sure bosses were free to economically exploit the workforce without feeling threatened.

The capitalists have always used the term "freedom" to mean freedom for the rich to get richer and the poor to starve to death
If a business owner has the right to accumulate wealth through capital then he has power over others, including power to limit their access to economic resources to which they should in justice be entitled. In the absence of specific economic rights that will benefit the poor, political and civil rights have much value to the rich but are not just valueless but unhelpful for the working class. To illustrate this point we can look to the example of the penniless homeless man who some liberals would argue is "free" to dine at the Ritz. In terms of human rights, it is the first generation rights liberals support that enforce the freedom of the Ritz's owners not to have the man steal their food. On the other hand, it is social and economic rights that say the man has a right to eat, and so, if realistically this would not oblige the Ritz to directly part with their food for his sake, it does mean that rich business owners would have their property rights curtailed by having to pay tax. Marx makes a convincing argument that property rights are unhelpful to much of the world, and there are other instances of civil and political rights that benefit the rich but as a consequence harm the poor. Freedom of speech is a right that no one would object to, but without economic rights in place it means that those who can afford it are free to spread their views through institutions like the mass media, whereas those with less money and alternative opinions have their voices drowned out. That is why Marx had a disliking for the first generation of rights as they were; he certainly saw things like racial equality as a prerequisite for a just society, but he felt that they were valueless and in some cases harmful in a system that did not make sure that everyone's needs for economic resources were met.

The theoretical importance of economic rights has been recognised by many more modern political campaigners, such as Martin Luther King. King is famous for championing civil rights in the 1960s, and what we hear most about are his campaigns for racial equality. He spent the few years prior to his assassination, however, fighting for economic rights for the less well off. Journalists Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon quote him as calling for a "multiracial army of the poor" to descend on Washington:

He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" – appropriating "military funds with alacricity and generosity," but providing "poverty funds with miserliness."
We can see from Cohen and Solomon's article that King certainly thought the government needed to provide economic assistance if civil rights were to be useful.

Also telling is the media responses to King's later campaign the writers point out. Nowadays those activities are hardly mentioned, while at the time, Time magazine called his 'Beyond Vietnam' speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script from Radio Hanoi", and the Washington Post wrote that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people". This brings us to another point about the usefulness of free speech to those who do not have the money to be heard. The large media corporations’ agendas favour civil and political rights but not economic rights – but the owners are those who do not need economic rights, because they have money anyway. So we can learn from what happened when King spoke out as well as from the things he had to say. His right to free speech was helpful when it was similar civil rights he was calling for, but it was less helpful when he was calling for more economic resources for the poor, as those with lots of money were against him.

It is not just radical campaigners who are in favour of economic rights to back up civil and political ones. In fact, the United Nations endorses them, and in the face of those who regard them as being more like aspirations than rights, it states that they are essential. It also makes the point that the two types of rights are indivisible and interdependent. When people put them into separate categories, there is a temptation to think of them as being more distinct from each other than they are. The aim of human rights is to allow people freedom and autonomy, and all kinds of rights are needed for that. However, even people who agree with this often use the fact of the separation in types to assert that first generation rights can and must be enforced while it is forgivable if economic rights are sometimes not. The reason often given is that we are always able not to actively interfere with people's freedoms (i.e. their civil rights) but governments may not always be able to guarantee economic resources. A problem with this is that it does in fact cost money, not just to make useful, but to enforce civil rights, for example in the form of policing and defence, and this highlights the interrelatedness of the two categories of rights. What the UN says is that the right to things like food and shelter are an intrinsic part of human rights, in the same way as civil and political rights are, and the fact that economic rights may be difficult to enforce does not mean it is acceptable not to.

First and second generation rights are two sides of the same coin. Both types of rights are necessary for achieving the aim of universal human freedom, and if any right is missing, then that freedom cannot be achieved. Indeed, we have seen from a number of examples that civil and political rights themselves have little value if we do not possess economic resources, and that they can even have a negative effect, exacerbating the economic divide between rich and poor. It is not enough for governments to ensure only the first set of rights and assume that economic resources will not be problematic to attain for some, or will not be needed. The only way we can ensure that everyone and not just a privileged few are free to exercise their civil and political rights in a useful way, is by guaranteeing access to certain economic resources as a right too.

David Beetham, Democracy and Human Rights, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999

David Beetham (ed.), Politics and Human Rights, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995

Gerald O'Driscoll, Kim Holmes and Melanie Kirkpatrick, "Unfree, Hence Poor" from "Economic Freedom Marches On", The Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, 30 December 1999, reprinted in Christina Sommers and Fred Sommers (eds.), Vice & Virtue in Everyday Life, Fifth Edition, Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2001

Geoffrey Robertson QC, Crimes Against Humanity, The Struggle for Global Justice, Second Edition, London: Penguin, 1999

Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996

United Nations, Fact Sheet No. 16 (Rev. 1), The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

While I wouldn't be surprised if there is a body of scholarship that uses the terms "positive rights" and "negative rights" as described above, i.e. positive=alienable, negative=inalienable, readers should be aware that there is also a completely different meaning for these terms.

"Positive Rights" and "Negative Rights" has also been used in to describe how rights of any kind (alienable or inalienable) are enumerated. In the U.K., rights are enumerated thus: you are prohibited from doing X, Y, and Z. Anything that isn't prohibited, you have the right to do. Hence rights in the UK may be said to be negative, meaning unenumerated, rather than positive, meaning enumerated in a sovereign, super-Parliamentary document. This has some interesting implications: The Parliament can (and does) exercise its authority at any time to ban a specific book. In theory, it could use the very same authority to restrict an entire category of rights, although in practice this is about as unprecedented as amending the US Constitution. An over-simplification, no doubt, but good enough for the current discussion. For most of English history there has been no "founding document" per se that defines one's rights -- rather these rights are based in centuries of accumulated legal tradition, see Common Law for an excellent discussion. A further example: the English Petition of Right, drafted in 1628, was, as I understand it, "just" another law enacted by Parliament and accepted by the Monarch. Under the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty, there never could be a master document passed by Parliament that binds future Parliaments. However, under the European Union (EU), this doctrine may be changing.

This is in marked contrast to the US Constitution, which is itself sovereign, and from which Congress draws its authority, and which lists specific, positive rights that one has, no matter what the Legislature may say. Outright banning of a book, for example, could in theory never happen without amending the Constitution.

The difference between inalienable rights, such as the right to free speech, where my exercising my right in theory does not infringe upon my neighbors right of free speech, and alienable rights, such as a right to shelter, where in theory my exercising my right involves a "taking" of someone else's house, is an important difference. But readers should be aware, that difference isn't the only thing that a writer could mean when they write about negative and positive rights.

For another, subtly different distinction between types of rights, see Two Concepts of Liberty and follow the soft-links. For an enthusiastic defense of negative rights, enjoy The Bill of Not Rights.

Positive rights

A discussion of positive rights essentially boils down to one's definition of liberty. One school of thought would have it that true liberty is to be found when the government stays out of the economic sphere altogether, another would have it that this leads to tyranny and oppression at the hands of the private individuals with all the resources. People who are adherents of the latter believe that the government should infringe on civil and social liberty for the good of "the community". In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau puts forward the idea of "self-rule", or the belief that true freedom is to be found by subordinating oneself to the community and accepting its will as your own. He holds that the will of the community, or the general will, is inalienable, indivisable, and infallible. Under The Social Contract, all individuals have positive freedom - that is, they have a right to a share of "the community"'s economic resources. I quote from The Social Contract:

"Every member of the community at the moment of its formation gives himself up to it, just as he actually is, himself and all his powers, of which the property that he possesses forms part." (emphasis mine)

Rousseau holds that all property belongs ultimately to the state, and he goes on to explain that the state's ultimate ownership makes it more secure and irrevocable, "at least in respect to foreigners". Rousseau believes that the state derives its right to property from the "right of first ownership" of individuals. Every man has a right to as much as he needs to subsist, but not the rest. This is why Rousseau believes a civil society should respect the right of first occupancy insofar as it applies to what a man needs for his basic survival, but not beyond this. To have a right to economic resources a man must use them to the fullest of his ability and hence benefit himself, and society, fully. As disposers of the public property, their right to it ends if they abuse it. But whilst they do, society, by its ultimate ownership, is the legitimising stamp on their ownership, protecting it from the usurpations of foreigners with all its might and guaranteeing respect from others within the society.

Although Rousseau doesn't address issues such as taxation or attainder1, it seems certain he was in favour of them where the good of "the community" at stake. He says directly -

"the right which every individual has over his own property is always subordinate to the right which the community has over all; otherwise there would be no stability in the social union, and no real force in the exercise of sovereignity"

It is Rousseau's defence of an absolute state which has led to The Social Contract been described as a "blueprint for totalitarianism". Opponents of positive rights believe that their imposition by a powerful state is a recipe for the death of negative rights and unhappiness for all. How, they ask, can an individual have any "rights" when he may be demanded to surrender himself and his property to others at any time? Central to the opposition to positive freedom by Ayn Rand is the very dismissal of the idea of "the community". Rand believes that "the community" doesn't exist, that what it in reality means is the bickering and fighting of various pressure groups over the resources of others. In the lecture The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus, Rand argued that the "anti-ideology" (its an anti-ideology because government action isn't guided by a set of ideological principles, but by the application of "pull" by pressure groups) of a mixed economy:

"A mixed economy is rule by pressure groups. It is an amoral, institionalized civil war of special interests and lobbies, all fighting to seize momentary control of the legislative machinery, to extort some special privilege at one another's expense by an act of government - i.e., by force."

Rand argued that a mixed economy is based on compromise between the interests of all parties, and therefore some groups will triumph and some fail according to the degree with which they can apply "political pull". She thought the only way to maintain everyone's rights inviolate was not to allow the economic sphere to be legislated by the government at all. This wasn't for the "common good", it was because certain rights in her opinion were inalienable. In Rand's opinion it was never right to coerce a man to do anything, which obviously includes confiscating his private property. The so-called "positive rights" such as the "right to a job", the "right to a house", in fact the right to any economic resources, require that these resources be paid for by someone else (ie. through redistributive taxation). And extorting wealth from someone, Rand said, is wrong. If someone wanted a house, or a job, or medical care, they'd have to earn it. So economics, says Rand, isn't the business of the government. The government is there to protect negative rights, and nothing else.

Rand was not entirely correct in saying there is no dominant trend in today's society: the trend is towards compromise, towards a mixed economy where economic freedom rights are not guaranteed. The lack of a dominant guiding philosophy in government and the "rule by consensus" nature of today's government means that governments will continue to legislate the economic sphere and provide positive rights to people by legally removing economic resources from richer elements. Rousseau's radical call for egalitarianism is not likely to be adhered to either (Rousseau was an inspiration for Karl Marx, and Marxism-Leninism at least has failed). The fact is, in today's societies, such black and white discussions of morality are not voiced, they are sacrificed on the altar of the cult of compromise.

1. An "Act of Attainder" was an act by which the sovereign could seize the property of another and bring it within the possession of the Crown. In the feudal system the Monarchy was the ultimate landowner and private property existed only by a right derived from it.


Rand, Ayn et al. Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal: Signet, 1967.

Rand, Ayn et al. The Virtue of Selfishness: Signet, 1964.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract: Wordsworth Classics, 1998.

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