Negative Rights

I have written elsewhere that negative rights are those which

do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

[Negative] rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of [negative] rights.

I would add that the right to work for a wage means the right to seek employment and to accept employment on agreed terms. The right to work for a wage does not imply a right to employment, which is the aim of “affirmative action.” In fact, “affirmative action” denies the right to work for a wage because it victimizes the better-qualified in favor of the less-qualified and unqualified. By the same token, “affirmative action” violates property ownership because it dictates how business owners must conduct their businesses and robs them of earnings. Other kinds of government action also deny the right to work for a wage; for example

  • government favoritism toward labor unions, which usurps the contractual freedom of individual workers and businesses

Going further, here is a list of negative rights offered by Randy Barnett:

A libertarian … favors the rigorous protection of certain individual rights that define the space within which people are free to choose how to act. These fundamental rights consist of (1) the right of private property, which includes the property one has in one’s own person; (2) the right of freedom of contract by which rights are transferred by one person to another; (3) the right of first possession, by which property comes to be owned from an unowned state; (4) the right to defend oneself and others when fundamental rights are being threatened; and (5) the right to restitution or compensation from those who violate another’s fundamental rights. (“Is the Constitution Libertarian?,” p. 3)

Barnett’s list overlaps with and complements mine. Combining the lists, I obtain the following set of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement
  • restitution or compensation for violations of the foregoing rights.
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