Positive and Negative Government

Early on in life, kids are taught the concepts of positive and negative in science. They learn about positive and negative poles on magnets and positive and negative terminals on batteries. 

By junior high school, kids are introduced to positive and negative numbers in mathematics. 

Unfortunately, few schools teach the concepts of positive and negative as they pertain to civics and government. Understanding positive and negative law and government is the most life-impacting positive/negative polarity of all. It is the fundamental difference between oppression and freedom.

Negative law tells us what we may not do; positive law tells us what we must do. Breaking a law incurs penalties. Under negative law, government penalizes someone for doing something that he isn't supposed to do. Under positive law, government penalizes someone for not doing something he is supposed to do. The distinction is profound and crucial.

The Ten Commandments are mainly negative, e.g., "Thou shalt not" kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, covet, etc. In other words, don't do these things to your fellow man. (Two commandments contain no explicit negative language, but they deal with private, not public, matters: one's obligation to God and to one's parents.)   

By contrast, in the New Testament, Jesus and his apostles give plenty of positive instructions to Christian disciples: love, give, forgive, seek, etc. Whereas law is negative, gospel is positive. It is crucial to understand that the gospel directives are matters of choice and conscience. Jesus never sought to make good deeds legally compellable by human governments. Charitable deeds are to spring from inner impulsion, not external compulsion.

Historically, our founding fathers established the American government on the basis of law, not gospel. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence makes the case for negative law and negative government. That is, government wasn't instituted to do good things for us, but to prevent anyone, foreign or domestic, from doing bad things to us. The only legitimate purpose of government was to protect our inalienable, God-given rights to be secure in our life, liberty, and property (as codified in the Fifth Amendment).

Frederic Bastiat captured the concept of negative government perfectly in his still-timely 1850 essay "The Law," writing, "the purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning." Adherence to the negative law of the Mosaic code is liberating. When government confines itself to protecting impartially everyone's God-given rights, then people are free to go about their business and achieve their potential. This negative orientation of law and government is the conservative ideal.

Where negative law liberates, positive law enslaves. When law and government assume a positive character by telling people what they must do, then citizens lose their independence. Furthermore, people potentially can be punished for sitting at home minding their own business. This will be so under ObamaCare, which commands us to buy government-approved health care insurance or be punished.  

Bastiat warned of the dangers of any legislation that "acts positively upon people. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own initiatives. When this happens, the people no longer need to discuss, to compare, and to plan ahead; the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for the people; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property."

This is the pathology and danger inherent in the modern transfer society. If government controls how much of our property goes to whom, then it really isn't our property, is it? Under negative law, government may not stop us from giving whatever we want to charities that we choose. Thankfully, we have that freedom today. Positive law takes away that freedom. Under positive law, government may take our property and decide to whom to give it.  This positive orientation of law and government is the progressive ideal. 

The progressive ideology is predicated on the belief that it is up to government to make life better for individuals. There are two inescapable problems with the progressive philosophy:

1) Since government can give to one only what it has taken from another, progressivism inevitably breeds conflict. It tramples the rule of law and justice, whereby everyone receives equal protections, by replacing it with a system of privileges, whereby some benefit at the expense of the rights of others.

2) The scope of positive government is infinitely elastic. No matter how much government gives to some, human wants are unlimited, so there is always a demand for government to transfer even more wealth to its privileged beneficiaries. The culmination of this process happens when government completely absorbs the private sector and there is nothing left to appropriate.

The conservative concept of negative law and government and the progressive concept of positive law and government are irreconcilable polar opposites. One or the other will eventually prevail. Our freedom hangs in the balance.

Mark Hendrickson teaches economics at Grove City College and is Fellow for Economic and Social Policy at the College's Center for Vision & Values (www.visandvals.org).
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