No, You Can’t Have It All

Postmodern Americans look like teenagers who want everything without effort. But why not? During these happy times we are, at last, free and able to do and to have everything we want. Most of our desires have become rights given by governments we freely chose because they promised us exactly that. Is there any downside? Apparently we don’t think there is any. Obama promises us free goodies, he gives them to us, and nothing bad happens.

Equal freedom is the highest political, social, and moral principle, and its goal is to be able to do and get what we want, as much and as equally as possible.”

Anything we can imagine in rights and freedoms is equally achievable, with no downside.

That was the thinking of the Jacobins and we know how it all ended. But human nature is stubborn, blind and deaf. From 1789 on, France tried to get everything out of nothing; in modern times Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain are trying it too. Of course we also know how it will end. But there is a bigger contradiction we don’t see: we, the supposedly capitalist United States of America, blind to the lessons of history, are now following socialist Europe.

In 1791, for the first time in history, the American Constitution proposed what are now called “negative” rights. Shortly after, the French révolutionnaires, with the direct influence of our radical Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson, proposed the better-sounding “positive” rights. A century later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made positive rights the basis of progressive thinking in the so-called Second Bill of Rights, a corrosive idea that has lasted up to our days. In fact, President Obama recently called the Constitution —disparagingly— “a charter of negative rights,” emphasizing his dislike for the bad-sounding adjective —and insisting on an ideological demarcation. Against these modern collectivist, ignorant fools, the Founders were wise in defending negative rights as the only ones belonging in the fundamental laws of a free country.

The underrated liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin wrote Four Essays on Liberty in 1969. In the third essay of that collection, titled Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin explains the difference between negative and positive liberty and expands on how these concepts gave birth to their respective rights. It is only now when Berlin can be fully seen as a prescient thinker.

According to Berlin, negative liberty or “freedom from” is individual freedom of choice devoid of coercion and exercised under adequate conditions. Therefore, the negative rights it gives birth to are passive and have no legal “power of encroachment” upon other individuals’ rights. They are defensive shields that citizens wield against government encroachment, levees against government oppression. There is no coercion in negative rights. But this is not all. Negative rights are innate and thus predate government. Whether one thinks of them as God-given, originating in natural law or flowing out of tradition or history, they are certainly not given by government.

On the other hand, positive liberty or “freedom to” gives birth to positive, active, assertive rights that occupy “legal space” and thus encroach upon other peoples’ rights, because a positive right is an entitlement taken out of society’s pool of resources. Positive rights are offensive swords that each citizen wields against every other citizen, because they are nothing but desires for goods that have to be coercively taken out of a common pool by the force of government, thus forcefully depriving some citizens for the benefit of others in a zero-sum game in which what a citizen wins as entitlement has first to be taken away from all other citizens. There is an essential, primeval coercion about positive rights, and this coercion has existed since the beginning of time but came into historical knowledge only during the French Revolution. It’s easy to see that generalized positive rights would necessarily mean a fight of everyone against everyone else, in a new Hobbesian state of nature managed by the government. Positive “rights” are given by government, they are part of the modern fight-to-the-finish between government as defined by 1900’s liberal theory and individual citizens as defined by the Constitution.

But there is an even bigger and more fundamental contradiction in positive rights: Liberals claim them as rights but they don’t bring children to the world, either by voluntarily not reproducing or by aborting the babies who accidentally bypass their established stops. Therefore, liberals are destroying the very basis of the system they claim to defend: the less offspring they have, the more they guarantee the end of liberalism. You can see this developing right now in Europe and you can preview its following episodes in a few years in the United States of America.

Vladimir Dorta, 07/15/2015