There is a long-standing philosophical dispute over what should be called a \”right,\” which often breaks down into a discussion of \”negative\” and \”positive\” rights. The US Bill of Rights offers a number of examples of \”negative rights,\” which are typically phrased in terms of what is not allowed. For example, the First Amendment begins with \”Congress shall make no law …\” before referring to freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning for redress of grievances. In this view, a \”right\” is something that cannot be taken away from you.
On the other side, the UN Declaration of Human Rights includes a number of \”positive\” rights, in which a common phrasing is that \”everyone has a right to …\” For example, Article 19 says: \”Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.\” Other articles hold that everyone has a right to \”the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality\” (Article 22), \”the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment …. to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection\” (Article 23), \”the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay\” (Article 24), \”the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control\” (Article 25). Many of these \”positive\” rights suggest that there is a duty or responsibility from government or society to provide certain goods, without specifying how this is to be done.
Of course, the line between \”negative\” and \”positive\” rights can be blurry in specific situations. But there does seem to me a meaningful distinction here. Moreover, I tend to agree with a long-ago comment by EB White, when the UN Declaration of Human Rights was under discussion, that referring to all human desires as human \”rights\” can lead to unwanted outcomes. As White wrote in 1953:
There is, I believe, a very real and discernible danger, to a country like ours, in an international covenant that equates human rights with human desires, and that attempts to satisfy, in a single document, governments and philosophies that are essentially irreconcilable. I do not think it safe or wise to confuse, or combine, the principle of freedom of religion or the principle of freedom of the press with any economic goal whatsoever, because of the likelihood that in guaranteeing the goal, you abandon the principle. This has happened over and over again. … If you were to pack croquet balls and eggs in a single container, and take them travelling, you would probably end your journey with some broken eggs. I believe that if you put a free press into the same bill with a full belly, you will likely end the journey with a controlled press.
But let us slide sideways out of the questions of philosophy, and instead phrase the question in terms of practicality. My experience is that many of those who want to wrap various policy goals in the language of \”rights\” is that they believe this designation will serve as a useful aspirational push for society to achieve these goals. Is that in fact true?
Robin Burgess, Michael Greenstone, Nicholas Ryan, and Anant Sudarshan offer a counterexample in \”The Consequences of Treating Electricity as a Right,\” in the Winter 2020 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. They are discussing the broader provision of electricity in developing countries like India. they write:
How can treating electricity as a right undermine the aim of universal access to reliable electricity? We argue that there are four steps. In step 1, because electricity is seen as a right, subsidies, theft, and nonpayment are widely tolerated. Bills that do not cover costs, unpaid bills, and illegal grid connections become an accepted part of the system. In step 2, electricity utilities—also known as distribution companies—lose money with each unit of electricity sold and in total lose large sums of money. Though governments provide support, at some point, budget constraints start to bind. In step 3, distribution companies have no option but to ration supply by limiting access and restricting hours of supply. In effect, distribution companies try to sell less of their product. In step 4, power supply is no longer governed by market forces. The link between payment and supply has been severed: those evading payment receive the same quality of supply as those who pay in full. …
The consequences for electricity consumers, both rich and poor, are severe. There is only one electricity grid, and it becomes impossible to offer a higher quantity or quality of supply to those consumers who are willing and sometimes even desperate to pay for it. Socially beneficial transactions are therefore prevented from occurring. This interaction of the social norm that electricity is a right and the technological constraint of a common grid for all parties makes it impossible to ration service to person by person, and firm by firm, making the consequences of treating electricity as a right more severe than for other private goods. Though private alternatives to grid electricity exist, like diesel generators and solar panels, these substitutes are inferior to grid electricity in terms of price and load (Burgess et al. 2019). In fact, the only reason these substitutes are competitive at all is that the quality of the service the grid provides is so poor.
For more on the economics of access electricity in developing countries, see:
- Kenneth Lee, Edward Miguel, and Catherine Wolfram. 2020. \”Does Household Electrification Supercharge Economic Development?\” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 34 (1): 122-44. \”We conclude that access to household electrification alone is not enough to drive meaningful gains in development outcomes. Instead, future initiatives may work better if paired with complementary inputs that allow people to do more with power.\”
- Vivien Foster and Anshul Rana 2020. Rethinking Power Sector Reform in the Developing World. Sustainable Infrastructure. Washington, DC: World Bank. \”This book provides a comprehensive evaluation of developing country power sector reform, sifting the evidence of whether reforms have contributed to improved sector outcomes. It also examines to what extent the reform paradigm remains relevant to the new social and environmental policy agenda of the twenty-first century, and is capable of adaptation to emerging technological disruption.\”
- \”The Challenge of Electrifying Africa\” (June 26, 2017)
- \”Power for Africa\” (June 10, 2015)