Column on Welfare “Rights”

Another Problem with Welfare Rights
Tibor R. Machan
A welfare or positive right, so called, is something that can only be
protected by coercing others to provide it. Consider the right to health
care. This supposed right can only be honored by making health care
professionals provide services for those who have need for it.
In contrast, a negative right, such as the right to one’s life, may be
respected and protected without making anyone do anything. To respect a
negative right one need do nothing at all, merely abstain from doing
something, like killing or assaulting or robbing someone. Respecting
negative rights is what happens when there is peace among people, when
none is intruding upon others.
The practical import of this is that a government that secures our human
rights acts only to repel criminals or foreign aggressors whereas a
government that is supposed to secure positive rights acts to force people
to do service to one another. Your supposed right to health care requires
that health care professionals or those who have to pay for their work be
forced to do what they do not choose to do. Your right to your life or
liberty or property, in contrast, requires no such intrusiveness from
It is interesting to realize that those who advocate negative basic
rights, the kind listed in the Declaration of Independence and identified
by the English political philosopher John Locke, have no difficulty
generalizing these rights to all human beings–they are, after all, human
rights. As Locke argued, just because of one’s nature as a human being,
one has these rights.
On the other hand, so called positive rights cannot be advocated for all.
So, for example, Hillary Clinton’s defense of the right to health care
applied only to Americans not to human beings as such. She could no more
defend such an alleged right for Germans or Koreans than she could defend
a minimum wage for them. That’s because she was seeking an office that
would empower her to force people to provide health services to their
fellow citizens but not to non-Americans. While as far as the right to
life is concerned, Mrs. Clinton could easily advocate it for all people
everywhere since all that right requires is for people to abstain from
It is true, as some have noted, that to secure negative rights,
governments or some similar agencies need to stand ready to respond to
those who would violate them. But all that amounts to is a prohibition of
aggressive conduct among people and that is why governments are like body
guards, agents who seek to secure one’s basic negative rights by repelling
aggression. Like body guards, such governments do not have the authority
to force anyone to do various things that others need.
Consider, also, that no gratitude or compensation is required when people
respect each others’ negative rights. If you do not kill me, I owe you no
thanks, no money, nothing, whereas if you provide me with medical care you
need at least to be thanked but more likely you need to be paid (since
that is how you earn your living). This means that to secure such alleged
rights, people’s resources must be confiscated from them so as to pay the
providers (unless they are directly conscripted to serve).
What so called positive or welfare rights really are is services some
people want from others for which they do not want to pay. They do not
want them to earn a living for what they provide but simply give it away.
And while such generosity is not unreasonably asked of relatives and other
intimates–though even then it should not be abused–it must not be
coerced from strangers.
In a free country negative rights are all that the law is concerned about,
unless a contract has been freely entered into so as to secure the
provision of services. So medical services are not free–no one has a
right to other people’s free professional services! Not as they have a
right to other people abstention from aggressive conduct.

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1 Response to Column on Welfare “Rights”

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