From James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal,  What Went Wrong With Human Rights, an interview with Aaron Rhodes:

That error is the conflation of “natural law” with “positive law.” Mr. Rhodes explains the difference: “Natural law is a kind of constraint on positive law.” Think of America’s Bill of Rights, whose opening clause is “Congress shall make no law.” The idea is “that laws have to answer to a higher law,” he says. “This is a vision of law that is very deeply embedded in Western civilization,” finding premodern expression in the ideas of the Greek Stoics and the Roman statesman Cicero, as well as in biblical canon law. Natural law is universal—or at least claims to be.

“Positive law,” Mr. Rhodes continues, “is the law of states and governments.” A statute like the Social Security Act of 1935 creates “positive rights”—government-conferred benefits to which citizens have a legal entitlement. Positive law is particular to a nation or other polity: “I live in Germany,” says Mr. Rhodes, a native of upstate New York whom I met during his U.S. book tour. “I enjoy a lot of economic and social rights there, but they reflect the political values of that community.” The Germans are “keen on being a moral society, where the state helps people. They’re statist. This is their mentality, but I don’t think it’s the same mentality here.”

Not everyone, however, accepts the idea of natural law. Adherents to the doctrine of legal positivism assert, in Mr. Rhodes’s words, “that all law is positive law, and the rest of it is just an illusion.” In this view, there is no difference in kind between, say, the right to free speech and the right to collect a Social Security check. Neither right is intrinsic to human nature, and both are bestowed by government.


This is a bit of political philosophy that is counter intuitive and hard for many to grasp. Government that seeks to protect rights rather than grant rights encourages human flourishing and freedom and ultimately the economic growth to fund greater social programs.

Material rights to products and  service that must be provided and paid for by others is inevitably oppressive and usually counterproductive.  The secret to Hong Kong’s miraculous growth was the priority of economic growth over social spending. The economic growth provided the means for greater social spending. Over time if you give priority to growth over social spending you will end up with more of both, and a healthier and more sustainable economy. Wealth production must precede wealth redistribution. Pursuing equality of outcome without assuring equality of opportunity is the road to stagnation.

Ignoring the reality of math often by calling expenses investments is foolish. In business an investment gives you title to the return.  Political “investments” do not, no matter how morally or socially justified.  A business investment has identifiable and measurable returns, political investments do not.