Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State

A right, as opposed to a privilege, is capable of universal application within a polity. The only true rights, therefore, are liberty rights, which are negative rights. So-called positive rights are privileges, not rights.

Liberty rights are represented in the Founders’ trinity of “unalienable Rights“: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These really constitute a unitary right, which I simply call liberty. The liberty right is unitary because liberty (as a separate right) is meaningless without life and the ability to pursue happiness. Thus we have this: rights ≡ liberty (rights and liberty are identical). The identity of rights and liberty is consistent with this definition of liberty:

3. A right or immunity to engage in certain actions without control or interference.

In essence, liberty consists of negative rights (the right not be attacked, robbed, etc.). Negative rights are true rights because they are capable of universal application: Leaving others alone (the essence of negative rights) costs each of us nothing and yields liberty for all.

Positive rights (the right to welfare benefits, a job based on one’s color or gender, etc.) are not rights, properly understood, because they are not capable of universal application: Taking from others (the requisite of positive rights) costs some of us something without an offsetting return. (Think, for example, of the redistributional effects of various taxes.) Positive rights cannot be had without engaging in actions that control or interfere with others. Positive rights are anti-libertarian privileges.

Liberty — rightly understood as the universal application of negative rights — is possible only when the Golden Rule is, in fact, the rule. The Golden Rule, which is the quintessential social norm, encapsulates a lesson learned over the eons of human coexistence. That lesson? If I desist from harming others, they (for the most part) will desist from harming me.

In civil society, exceptional behavior is dealt with by criticism and punishment (which may include ostracism). The exceptions usually are dealt with by codifying the myriad instances of the Golden Rule (e.g., do not steal, do not kill) and then enforcing those instances through communal action (i.e., justice and defense).

The exceptions that cannot be dealt with by civil society are the proper concern of the minimal state — one that is dedicated to the defense of its citizens from predators. But the state becomes illegitimate the moment it crosses the line from the enforcement of the Golden Rule (negative rights) to the granting of privileges (positive rights). For when the state does that, it is no longer dedicated to liberty.

Related posts:
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
Inventing “Liberalism”
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
A New (Cold) Civil War or Secession?
Civil War, Close Elections, and Voters’ Remorse
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism