Negative Rights: A Definitive Guide on What They Are

By | Updated September 1st, 2021

What are “Negative Rights”?


We all have rights as human beings in the United States. We have the right to attend school, go to college, work to obtain money, own property, and defend ourselves, but where do these rights start to infringe on others’ freedom? 

Negative rights define our freedoms and our right to have something without interference from outside forces. 

To define negative rights in the simplest manner, it’s one person’s right not to have another person interfere with their own liberties.

Negative Rights Definition 

To define negative rights in the simplest manner, it’s one person’s right not to have another person interfere with their own liberties. These rights entitle a person to certain things in life and merely ask that no one interferes with their right to have and enjoy those things. 

If someone has a negative right, it means they have the right to freely do something or obtain something how they choose without any interference from outside forces. They are free from the interference of another person or a group of people. 

Generally, in Libertarian values, this involves a person’s individual right to something without interference from the government. 

Another way to look at negative human rights is that it’s a person’s right not to be subjected to another action. Negative rights don’t only have to focus on obtaining goods and services, but it also applies to the fact that one person cannot force another person to do something because that would infringe on their liberties. 

If we compare positive and negative rights, there becomes a foggy distinction, but one thing that’s clear is that the two often contradict themselves. Many people view positive rights as a violation of negative rights. 

For example, everyone has the right to a public defender if they get arrested. It’s a positive right for the person being arrested, but the problem is that infringes on someone else’s negative right to choose who they defend, and it also creates issues when scarcity is involved. 

Suppose there are 50 people who need public defenders and only five lawyers. In that case, chances are not everyone will receive the same treatment, which will infringe upon the individuals positive rights to an attorney if they cannot afford one themselves. 

Most basic rights that we take for granted each day fall into one of these categories, and the American Bill of Rights classifies what an entitlement is, what’s a civil right, and what’s liberty? 

When we define negative rights, we start to see more of these come into play in our daily lives. There is often confusion over freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to have healthcare, property rights, and other inalienable freedoms. 

It’s important to understand that most of these are not negative rights; they’re positive rights but with those come the negative right to ensure that no one interferes with your rights. The non-interference factor creates a negative right, and we’ll break it down into some examples in the following section. 

Examples of Negative Rights 

What are negative rights in everyday life? A good example would be private property. As an American citizen, you have the positive right to own property where you choose as long as you can pay for it, and you follow the laws and rules associated with obtaining the land legally and fairly. 

You also have the negative right to prevent anyone from accessing your property without your permission. You don’t have to ever allow someone on your property unless they have a warrant to access it. Then at that point, law enforcement has a positive right to access your land because they’ve obtained a warrant. 

Now this means they’re infringing upon your negative right to private property, and this is where the two start to cause conflict. The positive duties supersede your negative freedom and can impact your well-being. 

In the United States, our negative rights are simply an agreement that we won’t interfere in other people’s private affairs as long as they don’t interfere in ours. It’s as simple as that. 

Another example is the negative right to free trade. It’s our natural right to be able to freely sell goods and services to others as long as the two parties can agree upon a price, process, and method of transaction. 

Of course, there are a variety of issues with this involving transferring fees, currency exchanges, bank fees, etc. All of these infringe on our negative right to free trade and the transfer of goods and services. 

There’s a great example of this political philosophy by Political Philosopher Isaiah Berlin in a lecture called “Two Concepts of Liberty.” He said: 

If negative liberty is concerned with the freedom to pursue one’s interests according to one’s own free will and without interference from external bodies, then positive liberty takes up the degree to which individuals or groups are able to act autonomously in the first place.”

What he’s saying here is, where does a positive right end and a negative right begin? What creates a negative limitation about how we may not act? 

The limitation comes when a certain action would violate another person’s liberty. If trespassing violates a property owner’s positive right to own private property, then it would be their negative right to deny anyone access to that land. 

The simplest definition is a negative right is the right of a person not to have someone interfere or create conflict with their right. 

Another example of a negative right is the right for someone to vote without interference or persuasion. As Americans, we have the right to vote how we like, and no one can interfere with that process, including going to the polls, mailing in a vote, completing our own ballot, ensuring it gets counted, and the process of tallying those votes. 

Summary 

To quickly summarize, the definition of a negative right is the freedom to have something without interference. Negative rights say that no one can get in the way of your liberties as long as you don’t get in the way of theirs. 

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