Conservatism And Leftism: Negative And Positive Rights


A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.“—Thomas Jefferson

The very essence of “true” conservatism, at its core, is the principle of individual liberty and self-determination. Sadly, I must caveat that statement with the distinction “true-conservatism”, because the word conservatism no longer holds the same meaning or principles that it once did. Rather, it has been hijacked by the establishment “cuckservative” Republicans, neo-cons, and anyone else on the statist “big government” right who has co-opted, tarnished, or misrepresented the word.

But I digress. True-conservatism, at its core, is the belief in the power, rights, and liberty of the individual, as well the self-determination and freedom of the individual to chart his own destiny free from any unnecessary and punitive government intrusions. Leftist collectivism, by its very definition, is the exact opposite.

This distinction between true-conservatism and leftist collectivism is perhaps most clearly visible in the concept and understanding of “positive” and “negative” rights.

Negative And Positive Rights

A) Negative Rights

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed“—Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, 1776

The true-conservative belief in the power and freedom of the individual begins with, and is fundamentally rooted in, the philosophical principles of natural and inalienable rights, as well as that of natural law. Natural or inalienable rights refers to rights that are inherent and fundamental to all men, as sentient, rational, and conscious individuals worthy of dignity. And as such, these rights are inherently granted to all individuals at birth, whether by god or natural existence. Natural rights are not granted by, nor do they come from, the government. Natural rights include things such as the right to life, liberty, dignity, and the pursuit of happiness—i.e. self-determination. Natural law is a similar concept, and involves the structuring of a society and its morals, values, and principles around that which is considered universal and fundamental truths of god, nature, and natural human existence.

These “reactionary” modern true-conservative principles are some of the very same principles which inspired the American Revolution and the US Founding Fathers over 200 years ago. Although at that time such ideas were considered liberal and revolutionary. These revolutionary principles and concepts were rooted in the philosophical, social, and political theories fermented during the Age of Enlightenment and the classical-liberal traditions of the 17th century. The works of notable Enlightenment philosophers and writers, such as Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and later Thomas Paine, and Adam Smith, inspired many of the US Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Ben Franklin. These Enlightenment philosophers and their works also inspired the content of some of the most important documents on liberty ever written, such as the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

These new Enlightenment philosophies of the 17th century emerged as a direct response and counter to the authoritarianism and tyranny found within the monarchies and churches of the day. These Enlightenment principles were also in direct opposition to the prevailing justification for authoritarian governance of the time, which was commonly known as the “divine right of kings“. This “divine right” was a religiously backed mandate which held that kings derived their position and power from god and not from the will or consent of their subjects. This then allowed monarchs—and by proxy their lords and nobles—to rule their subjects with practically absolute authority and impunity. As a result, the Enlightenment governing philosophies of the “social contract” and of “the government deriving its power from the consent of the governed” emerged as a direct counter to the mandate of “divine rights” and royal authoritarianism and despotism.

These new Enlightenment ideas about governance altered, in a philosophical sense, the nature of the relationship between the individual and his state, as well as the role the state should play in the lives of its citizens. These new ideas, inspired to a large extent by ancient Greek democracy and philosophy, held that the individual was more than merely a faceless subject or serf to be ruled over by a king. But rather, he was an individual who should be treated as a free citizen worthy of dignity, in possession of inalienable and natural rights, who should therefore play an active role in the direction and well-being of his state. And in return, the government of said state should be as reflective of the citizen’s will and consent as possible. It was believed that this consenting and active role of the free citizen best contributed to the overall success of the civil society and state. Furthermore, it was the underlying principles of natural and inalienable rights—inherent to the individual man, as a free and sentient being—upon which these new Enlightenment governing philosophies were ultimately based.

And so, it is these Enlightenment principles which form a large part of the foundation and core of modern true-conservative and traditionalist principles. True-conservatism is therefore ultimately about the respect and protection of an individual’s “negative” rights, or those rights which are considered inalienable, natural, fundamental, and which require absolutely no action or interference from the state or another person. Negative rights are rights to be retained by the individual. As the late Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it:

[the founders] sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men”.

As such, negative rights are rights that are to be “left alone”. They require absolutely no action from anyone but the individual who retains them, and therefore should be left alone by outside entities. Some examples of natural and inalienable negative rights include the rights to liberty, self-determination, freedom of thought and speech and expression, the freedom of religion and worship, the expectation of privacy under certain contexts, and the freedom to retain the fruits of one’s honest labor—i.e. private property rights.

True-conservatism also believes that certain negative rights—such as life, liberty, and private property for example—can and should only be deprived by a state or government through the legitimate due process of law. And through this due process, the burden of proof lies with the state. True-conservatism therefore believes steadfastly in the respect and adherence to the rule of law. Both as a means of social order, but also as a means of constraining and limiting the actions of the state against the individual’s rights and liberty. As such, this adherence to the law and to the limitations of the state is expected to be followed by both the individual as well as by those in political power and authority.

Ordered liberty and the rule of law may at times be imperfect, as all systems created by man are. But by striving to protect the negative rights of the individual above the power of the state, at least the emphasis is on the protection of individual liberty first, while the burden of proof falls with the state. While imperfect, to err on the side of negative rights and liberty, as opposed to the power of state, serves as a means of protecting the individual, limiting the state, and also as a means for improving any faults found within the system.

Therefore, negative rights are not only the rights which are retained by the individual and which require no action on the part of the government or an outside party in order to be exercised, but they are also the rights which expressly limit what the government is legally allowed to do. Negative rights are also intended to restrain the power of the state from excessively or illegally violating an individual’s natural rights, and also from exceeding the scope of legal authority which has been granted to the state. Negative rights, which are intended to empower the individual and restrain the state, provide a strict set of guidelines, rules, and laws which limit and restrict the scope and powers of the state, and are intended to prevent the arbitrary abuse of power the founders often warned against.

Examples of such negative rights which are expressly intended to limit the actions of the government against the individual may include such rights as: the protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, habeas corpus, the protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and the protection from double jeopardy. These rights, while not generally considered inalienable or natural, are still considered negative and are paramount to a free and civil society grounded in the rule of law. These types of negative rights, like all negative rights, are respected and preserved through absolutely no action on the part of the government or an outside party; and they are only violated or destroyed through illegal or excessive action by an outside party or the state.

The US Constitution and Bill of Rights are examples of constitutionally protected negative rights, because they are rules, laws, and rights which expressly limit the legitimate duties, functions, and powers of the government, while at the same time limiting the power of the government over the individual. A perfect example of this limitation on the scope of government functions—now grossly exceeded—is the 10th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which expressly states: the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Procedural negative rights are procedural rights which were instituted to ensure that an individual’s actual negative rights—like life, liberty, and private property—could only be legitimately deprived through the rule of law, the burden of proof, and after the legal process has played out. Some examples of such procedural negative rights include: the due process of law, probable cause, warrants, the right to a grand jury indictment, and the right to a jury trial. These procedural negative rights exist ultimately ensure the protection of the most essential of negative rights, an individual’s life and liberty.

So then, if true-conservatism is predominantly concerned with acknowledging and protecting the natural negative rights and liberty of the individual and limiting the power and scope of the state, than leftism, with its prioritization on the centralized state and collective over that of the rights of the individual, is by definition its fundamental opposite. And if true-conservatism therefore concerns itself with individual “negative” rights which help to defend individual liberty from the clutches of an ever intrusive state, than by contrast leftist collectivism is far more concerned with “positive” rights that are bestowed by the intrusive state upon the collective. To make this distinction very simple, negative rights empower the individual and positive rights empower the state.

Yet it goes even deeper than that. Negative individual rights, which are considered inalienable, natural, and fundamental to all men, are derived from god, nature, or simply natural existence. They are not derived from man, and can only be deprived by man by means of legitimate due process or illegitimate violation. Positive rights on the other hand are completely and solely derived from man and the state, and can be arbitrary in their assignment, application, and execution, and therefore cannot possibly be considered universal as a result.

B) Positive Rights

Positive rights are the right to shelter, the right to education, the right to health care, the right to a living wage. These things are – these are, I would call them, more properly, political rights rather than positive rights. And they are extremely tricky, because now we are dealing with things that are zero sum”—P. J. O’Rourke

Positive rights are the complete opposite of negative rights, in that they require the direct action of another party in order to be exercised. Whereas negative rights require the inaction of another party, positive rights expressly grant another party power over the individual in order for them to be exercised. As such, positive rights cannot possibly be retained by the individual because they fundamentally require the action, involvement, or benevolence from an outside party.

Negative rights require no action from an outside party, and can only be violated by illegitimate direct action, but positive rights absolutely require such outside action. And because positive rights require this direct action from an outside party, they can also be easily revoked by said outside party. In fact, positive rights are often granted at the direct expense, inverse, or violation of negative rights and individual liberty. Positive rights also directly or indirectly empower or grant an outside entity—generally the state—increased or expanded authority over the individual, as opposed to limiting such power.

And if positive rights inherently require the overt action of an outside party—again, generally the state—and can thereby be revoked by the state at any time, then the state can also arbitrarily pick, choose, and ration how, who, when, and under what conditions various rights are conferred upon the people. The empowered state is also able to pick and choose who or what people or groups are allowed certain positive rights, further empowering the state over the individual or specific groups. This is nothing more than an invitation for the suppression, control, and subjugation of any group the state so chooses. It is a blatant means of control and obedience by the state. Not to mention the fact that positive rights also generally requires the redistribution and reallocation of resources from one person to another, further indicating their arbitrary nature, and illustrating the potential for the state to subvert people or groups of its choosing.

This fundamental reality then proves that positive rights, by their very nature, cannot be considered inalienable, fundamental, or universal. Positive rights apply selectively to different people or groups, and are always subject to the whims of the state. They are inherently arbitrary in their distribution and application and they absolutely require the direct actions of an outside party—the state. Positive rights can therefore also be revoked at any time by the state. This does not sound like the description of a right that is fundamental or universal.

Yet these are the rights that leftists and progressives are the most concerned about enacting and defending. And despite the fact that positive rights cannot be considered universal due to their very nature, leftists, in their political dishonesty, will still try to claim that they are somehow are. Leftism is constantly trying to redefine positive rights as somehow basic entitled human rights, but this only serves to justify their further empowerment and expansion of the state over the individual. No matter how well intended they may be, positive rights and entitlements are the rights that empower the state over the individual, grant increased action and authority to the state, and ensure the permanent dependency of the individual to the state.

Some common examples of these theoretical, state granted positive rights may include such things as: the right to a job, a standard of living, housing and shelter, a minimum wage, food, healthcare, the right to education, and various other government provided services and entitlements. While many are seemingly benign or well-intentioned on the surface, positive rights ultimately only serve to empower the state, create dependency, and destroy individual liberty. These rights and entitlements, especially if they are staple needs, all too often can serve as a means of leverage or control by the state over the people. Sure, we will feed and house you, but then we own you. And in the blink of an eye, one’s inalienable right to self-determination has vanished. As author Mark Levin so aptly stated in his 2009 book Liberty And Tyranny:

The individual will be seduced by the notion that he is receiving a benefit from the state when in reality the government is merely rationing benefits. The individual is tethered to the state, literally and utterly reliant on it for his own health and survival.”

Perhaps one of the best examples and explanations of the leftist’s view on positive rights can be seen in Franklin Roosevelt’s—the US’s first extremely successful socialist president—1944 state of the union address, more commonly known as FDR’s “second bill of rights”. In this address, Roosevelt clearly expressed his leftist socialist views by declaring the need for further government entitlements—positive rights—and by declaring such entitlements as fundamental rights. He also clearly pointed out how individual negative rights must be sacrificed in the name of the collective good and positive rights. FDR stated:

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed. 

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation; The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living; The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; The right to a good education.

In this famous speech, which has since become the blueprint and model cited by modern leftists everywhere—like Obama and Hillary Clinton—FDR was clearly implying that only by empowering the state over individual liberty, could “equality” be artificially achieved.

Conservatism Vs Leftist Collectivism

The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it for yourself“—Benjamin Franklin

And although the positive and negative distinction is not a completely perfect way of classifying rights, it is the generally used and accepted terminology, and will suffice here.

Once again, the granting of positive rights by the state often destroys an individual’s negative rights, or they are unknowingly or willfully sacrificed in the name of granting positive rights and entitlements. The taxation, wealth transfers, and redistributions required to subsidize positive rights rob the individual of his private property and the fruits of his labor. The increased dependency upon the state robs the individual of his inherent dignity and self-determination. And the increased empowerment of the state will inevitably rob the individual of the liberty which was once found in the minimization and limitation of the state.

Ultimately, it is a trade-off between the dignity yet uncertainty of liberty, and the certainty and comfort of slavery. For as George Orwell wrote in 1984:

The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better”.

The granting of positive rights forever changes the relationship between the individual and his state. No longer is the social contract based on protecting the inherent natural liberty of the individual while limiting the power of the state; but rather it becomes one of empowering the state while creating the dependency of the individual to the state.

The obvious difference then is that true-conservatism is about trying to defend the inalienable negative rights of the individual while trying to limit an ever intrusive government, whereas leftism feels that it is the power, duty, and grace of that empowered and intrusive government to grant positive rights to the collective people in exchange for their subservience. In fact, leftism often views the natural negative rights of individuals, or the negative rights intended to restrain government, as obstacles standing in their way of state expansion and control that must first be overcome. The left realizes the blatant fact that negative rights stand in their way of empowering the authoritarian-totalitarian state over the individual, so negative rights such as individual liberty, limited government, and the constitution must first be destroyed.

Sadly, over the years the left has realized how easy this has become. For with every new government regulation, law, or entitlement program sold to the public under the guise of good intentions, the individual loses a portion of their liberty, independence, self-reliance, and self-determination. It makes the individual more beholden and dependent on the continued “benevolence” of the state, and grants the state increased dangerous leverage over the individual. Once an individual becomes completely dependent on the grace and pittance of the state for their very existence, they are no longer a free and independent citizen with liberty, free will, and choice. Instead they are a slave, subject to the whims and demands of the state.

When positive rights are granted by the state, they can also be easily taken away as a means of social control. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you so to speak. Furthermore, the terms and conditions of the social contract can be re-written or invalidated on the whim or needs of the state. Positive rights and benefits exist so long as the entity granting them—i.e. the state—chooses to, or is able to, continue providing the action required to grant them. To make matters worse, the now completely dependent collective has lost all leverage and bargaining power because they sacrificed their negative rights once designed to restrain the state and empower the individual.

Granted, an increasingly tyrannical state can violate or destroy any right of the individual, as well as exceed its constitutional boundaries, but some rights are easier to violate or destroy than others. When rights—negative—are natural, derived from god, and retained by the individual, they cannot be destroyed except by tyrannical or illegal action. When rights—positive—are derived from man, require action, and are not retained by the individual, they can be altered or destroyed by the providing party at any time. Some rights and principles are even stronger than death, and are worth dying for. When you ultimately boil it down, all rights are merely theoretical and philosophical unless you have people willing to protect them, to fight for them, and even to potentially die for them. For as the saying goes, words are meaningless without action. And rights, without those willing to defend them and potentially die for them, are just merely words.

Therefore, true-conservatism is about actively protecting the freedom of the individual from the ever intrusive and ever leftist authoritarian-totalitarian state which seeks to minimize and destroy his negative rights. True-conservatism is about allowing the individual the freedom to pursue his own goals, ambitions, and self-interests without the unnecessary intrusion of the state. It is the principle of ensuring that all individuals have equality in negative rights, natural liberty, self-determination, dignity, and humanity, as opposed to the leftist collectivist principles of mandating socially-engineered equality of conditions and outcomes on behalf of the empowered state—generally through government laws, policies, regulations, taxation, redistribution, and punishment.


Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one” — Thomas Paine

Throughout history, there has been constant debate and disagreement over true-conservative policies. Even the Founding Fathers disagreed and debated over the size and scope of government. Yet in the end, true-conservatism can respect these differing views, along with the right to debate and disagree, because true-conservatism is fundamentally about the protection of individual liberty and an individual’s negative rights. True-conservatism seeks only to empower and respect the individual and their inalienable negative rights as a firewall against the ever intrusive state.

Leftism, on the other hand, seeks to empower the centralized state, through the false promise of “equality” via state granted positive rights and forced collectivism over the liberty of the individual. Whereas true-conservatism is about an individual’s equal access to liberty and self-determination, leftism is about forcing and socially-engineering equal outcomes through laws, regulations, taxation, the redistribution of wealth and private property, and positive rights.

And for every positive right granted by the state, more and more of the individual’s negative rights, liberty, self-determination, and dignity is chipped away.

Revised: 10-22-2015

© 2015 by AB Frank, All Rights Reserved

Read More: Understanding The Political Scale

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