Letter to the Editor: Positive and Negative Rights

Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 2:54pm

A couple of recently published opinion articles butted heads over whether or not literacy should be considered a right. In both articles, the authors failed to detail an important distinction between a positive right and a negative right.

Mr. Davidson touched upon it in his article, but did not adequately spell out the difference. Negative rights are those that oblige inaction of the state, such as the right to bear arms. Positive rights are those that oblige action of the state, such as the right to education.

Construing one type of right as the other makes little sense — a negative right to education means that the state cannot prevent you from attaining education, but has no obligation to provide education, while a positive right to bear arms means that the state is obliged to arm all of its citizens. This small semantic distinction clearly has a profound effect.

With this in mind, it is helpful to think of positive rights as duties of the state. So when one says that a citizen of the United States has a right to fair trial, what one means is that the United States has a duty to provide a fair trial to its citizens.

Applying this to the topic at hand, we move from “Do residents of Michigan have a right to literacy?” to “Does the state of Michigan have a duty to make sure its residents are literate?”

The word “right” carries with it a degree of philosophical weight, and by shedding this weight we can see the question at hand in a clearer light — it is a debate on what we as citizens should expect the state to provide us.