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“Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper's bell of an approaching looter.”     Ayn Rand

June 29, 2011

Kevin Drum’s Guest Bloggers Upholding The [ahem] Fine Standards He Has Created There

by Brad Warbiany

Kevin Drum is on vacation this week. While I thought that might leave me without boneheaded material to criticize, I’m afraid he’s found guest bloggers as credible and clueless as himself. Today we have Andy Kroll, who wants to delve into meta-debates about rights and entitlements with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker:

But the statement that really jumped out from Walker’s interview is his own perception of the bargaining fight:

“They defined it as a rights issue. It’s not a rights issue. It’s an expensive entitlement.”

What’s his first step to show how wrong Walker is? Well, he skips right to the United Nations, a body whose Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that you can use your rights as long as you don’t do so in a way “contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations” (Art. 29, Sec 3). He starts there and follows on with a lot of other legally-created privileges that he calls rights:

Hmm. I’m pretty sure the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the UN after World War II (and drafted and adopted by the US), says that collective bargaining is in fact a human right. Oh, yes, there it is, in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration:

4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Then there’s the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) here in the US, which “explicitly grants employees the right to collectively bargain and join trade unions,” according to the scholars at Cornell University Law School. Or as the National Labor Relations Board’s website puts it, the NLRA “protects employees’ rights to act together, with or without a union, to improve working terms and conditions, including wages and benefits.”

All of this analysis has one critical flaw: it doesn’t properly recognize that there are multiple kinds of rights, and that a right which the government shall not deny is, well, slightly different than one that it grants. I left the below in a comment to that Kroll’s post at the original site:

Are you even familiar with the distinction between “negative rights” and “positive rights”?

Negative rights are rights that you have unless someone else infringes upon them. You have a right to life, but not to force others to produce the food and shelter you need to live. You have the right to freedom of speech, but not the right to force anyone to listen (or, in the case of blogging, to force a blog to print your comments to a post). A right to healthcare or education — if you define it as me not being stopped by government or highway robbers from freely purchasing health or education services on an open market from a willing seller — is a negative right.

Positive rights are rights that require someone else to procure them to you. A right to healthcare — if you assume that those who can’t afford care should be covered by “society” — is a positive right. A right to an education — if you assume it should be paid for by government taxes — is a positive right. A right to food — if you define it as foodstamps for the indigent — is a positive right. *ALL* positive rights can be described as “entitlements”, as they’re what we as a society might define all people are entitled to be provided to them if they cannot do it themselves.

A “right” to organizing a union is a positive right (inasmuch as it restricts and employer’s ability to fire people for trying to exercise it). If we so choose, in our democratic society, that people should be allowed to unionize to counterbalance what may be perceived as in unfair labor advantage to the employer, we can call it a “right” all we want, but it’s a positive right, not a negative right. As such, calling it an “expensive entitlement” doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. I don’t see any real disconnect in what Walker said.

Now, I was a bit unclear in that final paragraph. What I intended to say was this: The right to form a union is a negative right. It is inherent in the right to freedom of association. The right to collective bargaining is a negative right. It is inherent in the right to freedom of speech. As you point out (and as I intended to), it becomes a positive right when we write laws or regulations forcing businesses to the other side of the table. Forcing an employer to actually deal with them on those collective terms is the “entitlement” of that positive right.

Andy Kroll waded into deep water here, and it’s clear he didn’t want to recognize that. It’s also potentially true that Gov. Walker did the same — the original linked article doesn’t make clear whether Walker’s statement about entitlement had deeper context. Kroll is trying to use one line from an already snipped interview to make Gov. Walker sound like a simpleton who doesn’t understand the nature of rights. In doing so, Kroll only proves that to be the case about himself.

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2 Comments

  1. Brad,

    I’m posting here part of my response to a comment on MJ. It is about as succinct an explanation of negative vs positive rights as I’ve been able to come up with:

    My claim of a right must end when it necessitates your obligation to provide me with something in order that my right be realized.

    Comment by I_am_a_lead_pencil — June 30, 2011 @ 11:10 am
  2. Or, to put it another way:

    Your rights end at the tip of my nose. My rights end at the opening to your wallet.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — July 1, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

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