Positively Negative

By Kerrod Gream

How do positive and negative rights affect us? Why is the distinction important? Kerrod Gream talks about how we need to pay attention to the difference…

With education reform being looked to help reign in government spending there have been lots of shouts about how education is a right, but what makes this so? Is there any intellectual backing behind this notion of education being a right? Outside of government charters is there any way that education exists as a right?

To look at human rights we first have to understand the difference between natural rights and positive rights. A natural right is a right that is inherent, one that is granted to us through our existence these rights would exist if we were the only ones in existence, and we’d be able to practice these without infringing upon the rights of others. These include things such as freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, right to property, and right to one’s labour; these rights can only be infringed on but exist through natural existence. Positive rights are those that are granted by the government, or need government enforcement for them to exist, these include right to ‘free’ healthcare, and right to ‘free’ education, for these to be enforced you have to take away something from someone else, whether that be money through taxation, or taking away a person’s time through their labour. For these ‘rights’ to be enforced, you need a middle agent, infringing upon someone’s natural rights to grant them, these infringements occurring on the right to one’s labour and property. They wouldn’t exist without the middle agent, and thus cannot be considered natural rights.

This is why the discussion of rights needs be addressed, by calling anything you want a right because you believe it is a desirable outcome doesn’t mean it is a right. If you’re imposing a cost on others to provide it you’re impeding on others rights. When someone says “Education is a right” what they’re really saying is “Others must provide my education with no cost to me.” This view is the prominent view in modern society, without being able to back up why it is a right. This is why education is a privilege, one that we’re lucky to be able to have access. Whether this be through traditional means of schooling, and tertiary education, or whether it’s self-taught through Internet learning or book learning.

You also have to ask what sorts of education is a right? Is it traditional schooling, where those can indefinitely go to university without returning the cost of investment back to those who provided the funds for it. Or is education of all forms a right, this includes learning through doing, whether it’s self-taught, or somebody else teaching you how something works. To say blanketly that education is a right, without defining what sort of education it’s an ill thought position, and something you need to consider. Should others in society hold the burden of education, or should it fall on the primary beneficiary? If we’re providing healthcare should it be society’s responsibility to look after someone who has put themselves in a dangerous situation knowing that they’ll be looked after without cost to themselves? Where do we draw the line on society’s burden?

For us to consider something a right, we should instead be focusing on things that are inherently granted to us, things that don’t require a middle man to enforce, once we’re grown up enough to have that discussion, than determining governmental policy then becomes an actual discussion.

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