The Veil of Liberty — Negative Rights

Why Only Negative Rights are Virtuous

Libertarian Thinker
4 min readMar 17, 2024

In the grand theater of human ideas, negative rights stand as silent sentinels, guarding the individual from the encroachments of external forces. These rights, often misunderstood, are the very essence of libertarian philosophy — ensuring that one’s personal domain remains inviolate. While positive rights are rights to something, negative rights are rights from something. Let’s explore why libertarians argue exclusively for negative rights, when they speak of rights.

The Essence of Non-Interference

To comprehend libertarian philosophy, it is critical to understand the distinction between positive and negative rights. Positive rights outline what somebody is eligible to receive. Negative rights, on the other hand, describe what a person is free to do. For example, because education does not exists without a person teaching a subject matter, the right to education is a positive right. In contrast, for it describes a natural condition without anybody doing anything, the right to religious freedom is a negative right.

Negative rights are the refrain of ‘thou shalt not’ in the symphony of social interaction. They are the commitment to abstain from impinging on another’s freedom, the promise to not coerce or harm. These rights serve as a demarcation line, beyond which the authority of others cannot tread, safeguarding the individual’s autonomy and dignity.

Echoes from the Enlightenment

The roots of negative rights delve deep into the Enlightenment, where thinkers like Locke and Paine etched the notion of inherent liberties into the bedrock of political thought. Describing the natural state of man, untainted by the hand of government, these natural laws were the philosophical ancestors of modern democracy, predicated on the belief that certain liberties are inalienable and universal.

More recently in 1958, Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin delivered “Two Concepts of Liberty” as his inaugural lecture at the University of Oxford. Subsequently, it was published as a pamphlet. This essay’s explicit distinction between positive and negative liberty constitutes a significant differentiation to be made in discussions on the topic of political freedom. Berlin stressed that distinguishing between positive and negative liberty is crucial, as they are not just different flavors of the condition described by liberty but characterize states fundamentally different and antithetical.

Pillars of a Free Society

Libertarians detest positive rights since confiscating part of people’s fortunes to persuade a possible instructor is the only alternative to forcing a provider to supply these services. Hence, because for libertarians coercion is not a viable option, positive rights, involving compulsion on a societal level, are not principles they would ever advocate for.

This also explains the polarity of positive and negative rights. If nobody supplies the services needed voluntarily, an individual is coerced to do that. Since negative rights describe the natural state without compulsion, this situation is an infringement on them. Hence, positive rights are the antithesis of negative rights.

Another differentiating factor is that there is no limit to positive rights. You can rationalize many subjects as being very beneficial for the populace or individual people. For instance, you could find some good reasons that everybody should be provided a free ribeye steak everyday. There would be less people suffering from anemia, but somebody would need to provide the meat. In contrast, negative rights cannot be rationalized into existence. They either exist in the natural form of human existence or they do not.

For free societies, the significance of negative rights cannot be overstated. They are the invisible pillars that support the edifice of a free populace, ensuring that the individual’s autonomy is paramount. If a society upholds them, they act as a counterbalance to the power of groups and the state, ensuring that the collective does not trample upon the individual.

Negative Rights in the Tapestry of Daily Life

In everyday life, negative rights manifest as the freedom to choose one’s path, to speak one’s mind, and to pursue one’s dreams, unimpeded by the unjust will of another. They are the everyday expressions of our innermost desires for freedom and self-expression, allowing us to live our lives according to our own values and beliefs.

Negative rights are upheld when you abstain from forcefully interfering with another’s conduct. By refraining from doing that, you honor the fundamental principle of libertarian behavior. Engage in your community and provide services some people describe as rights but never act as if every person ought to be provided this endeavor. Not under any circumstances, advocate for the provision of a product or service to everybody by compulsion.

Since many positive rights, however, describe situations that would clearly benefit society, if you are well-situated financially, consider regularly donating part of your income to organizations delivering services that can be described as positive rights. As a libertarian, you do good without being forced to.

The Right to Be Left Alone

To conclude, whereas to supply products and services described by positive rights at least one individual needs to be coerced to provide something, negative rights are the guardians of our personal sovereignty. They are the unwavering champions of the idea that each person should be master of their own destiny. Since compulsion has to be kept to a minimum in a liberty-oriented civilization, positive rights cannot exist in a free society. As we navigate the complexities of the modern world of people demanding all kinds of matters they call rights to be provided for free, negative rights are our compass, guiding us towards a future where individual liberty is the norm, not the exception.

Think for yourself and question everything my fellow libertarians!



Libertarian Thinker

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