Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

What Are Humans Entitled To?

Written by johnleemk on 12:52:09 pm Jul 20, 2007.
Categories: ,

There are distinctions in the rights of individuals. There is positive and negative liberty; people are entitled to certain things under the concept of positive liberty.

Positive liberty has always been a worrying concept for a number of libertarians. For one, positive liberty implies a big government that is always standing by to guarantee a lot of rights — and libertarians naturally feel that such rights should best be held and defended by the people, rather than the government.

There is also of course, the fear that rights may unnecessarily be conferred on others. For instance, there are frequent campaigns in the West for a minimum "living wage" that every individual is entitled to.

Libertarians think that conferring such a right is unnecessary and only enlarges the scope of government while reducing individual responsibility and freedom (e.g. what if I want to get a job because I love it so badly I'd do it for free, but the only way to get it short of sleeping with my interviewer — and that's assuming I'm sufficiently attractive and that we are of compatible sexual orientations — is asking for a lower wage?).

I share libertarian concerns about governments insisting that the individual innately has the right to happiness, the right to health, or the right to eat, even. It's not that I don't have any sense of morals or compassion; it's just that I feel that the government is not a body meant to determine outcomes.

The government's purpose, in my view, is to act as a facilitator for individuals to achieve happiness and their personal life goals on their own, with a minimal amount of outside assistance.

In other words, I see the government's role as that of determining opportunities, rather than results. To borrow the words of the American declaration of independence, the main, if not only, positive right that governments should confer on their people is the right to act in the "pursuit of happiness", because from that all else follows.

There is a problem, of course, when not everyone has the same opportunities to pursue happiness. Although absolute equality of opportunity is impossible, there ought to be a guarantee of opportunities — if a child born to a family of beggars only has a chance of escaping the life of a beggar through a lottery ticket, can we really say that child has had the right to pursue happiness?

At this point, you might realise that in order to ensure a modicum of equal opportunities, the government has to tackle problems such as starvation, education and healthcare anyway. So what is wrong with additional positive rights in these areas?

The problem is that focusing on, say, the right to an education, obscures the reason why governments should be making education available to every child. It is not because it is humane, or somehow better to do; it is because what this is doing guarantees the ultimate positive right — the right to pursue happiness.

It is for this reason that much of the noise made by libertarians about proposals like the living wage and other assorted positive rights is grounded in some reason. If you understand the real positive right that is supposed to underlie all other rights, you should understand just what is wrong with the idea that there should be an absolute minimum wage.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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