More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman statesman Cicero defined freedom as, “a man’s natural power of doing what he pleases, so far as he is not prevented by force or law.” The American founders were deeply influenced by Cicero; in 1782, Thomas Jefferson put his view of rights more succinctly: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Jefferson’s epigram has come to epitomize the traditional American idea of liberty: that rights are guarantees against government force. In other words, you have the right not to be stolen from, assaulted or otherwise aggressed against.
On this view, moreover, you have no right to aggress against others. It’s no coincidence that we have an inalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness” rather than to happiness itself. Even if I will be inconsolably depressed unless I marry Natalie Portman, I do not have some “positive right” to do so. It cannot be the case that you are violating my rights simply by not conforming your life to my will. A blanket right to “happiness,” per se, would be a blank check on the coercion needed to obtain it.
To some, however, this blank check is worth writing. Today, an increasing number of Americans believe that rights are guarantees of, rather than limitations on, government action. Outside the context of its speaker, I think many of these Americans would consider the following 1936 quote from Joseph Stalin to be a fair summary of their position.
“It is difficult for me to imagine what ‘personal liberty’ is enjoyed by an unemployed person, who goes about hungry, and cannot find employment,” scoffed the mustached general secretary. “Real liberty can exist only … where there is no unemployment and poverty, where a man is not haunted by the fear of being tomorrow deprived of work, of home and of bread. Only in such a society is real, and not paper, personal and every other liberty possible.”
I’m all too aware that attributing an opposing position to murderous tyrants is a tired cliché. But I think it is, in this case, a necessary one. Unlike Hitler’s vegetarianism, Stalin’s belief in so-called positive rights was essential, rather than incidental, to his being a murderous tyrant.
I don’t think everyone to my left is Joseph Stalin. In fact, I see my criticism as less of a vilification of modern progressives than an empathetic take on 20th century Marxism. I think the Marxist governments of the last century really did believe in the positive rights they touted. To these governments, any deviation from utopia was a kind of theft or fraud, warranting a defensive response. Communists were therefore acting in a logically valid way when they murdered – according to political scientist R.J. Rummel – nearly two-thirds of everyone killed by governments from 1900 to 1987.
I think I can hear the objection of any progressive readers who’ve made it this far. My left-leaning friends often argue that, while the American left promotes positive rights, it also staunchly defends the liberty that I value. After all, wasn’t it Democrats who opposed the Patriot Act and other government intrusions under former President George Bush?
While these friends may be sincere in their concern for civil liberties, however, I think they are the exception rather than the norm. According to Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, there was less domestic surveillance under Bush than under President Barack Obama. Yet, during Bush’s second term, conservatives responded to Bush’s big government policies with mass disillusionment. According to a February 2009 CBS article, Bush’s final approval rating was only 22 percent.
The bulk of President Obama’s supporters, conversely, have stood by him both through his extensions of the Patriot Act and his explicit defense of massive NSA surveillance. When positive rights conflict with legitimate ones, champions of the former will rarely hesitate to throw the latter to the wind.
If progressives have their own understanding of liberty, then it is a mistaken one. There is only one valid definition of freedom, and it is the definition that the American founders inherited from Cicero. Happiness should be promoted: I consider it more valuable than economic success. Yet it is those societies that affirm a right to happiness in which real happiness will flourish the least.
Ian Huyett is a senior in political science and anthropology. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.