What does that mean? A negative right in relation to the government is a freedom from compulsion. Freedom of Speech is a negative right that prevents government from interfering with speech. Similarly freedom of religion and the right to bear arms create negative spaces in religion and firearms which the government may not intrude upon.
When you hear talk of a right to health care or a right to housing by the government, those are positive rights, creating an obligation on the part of the government to carry out a course of action, e.g. free housing or cheap health care.
This is an obligation or entitlement by the government to you. But since all government rights devolve to the people, what this really means is that we are collectively obligated to provide health care or housing. And that we are enjoined from collectively using the mechanisms of government to interfere with speech, religion or firearms ownership.
On an individual basis, negative rights are freedoms that I have from you, and positive rights are obligations that I have to you. A negative right prevents you from trespassing on my property, on the other hand a positive right demands that I put up bilingual signs out of respect for your culture.
A society where negative rights are maximized, values individuality over social harmony. However a society where positive rights are maximized values social harmony over individual freedom.
The major shift in American life has been from a social contract based on negative rights to one based on positive rights. Negative rights have been in decline for some time, even some amendments in the Bill of Rights have been severely weakened– and most of the civil rights debates today are over positive rights.
This is the victory of the French Revolution over the American Revolution. The American Revolution was aimed at a change of government, not a social transformation. It saw repression in political terms, that once removed and backed by negative rights, would enable a free society to maintain itself. But the French Revolution aimed at a complete social transformation, not merely deposing a king, but creating a new revolutionary consensus.
The fundamental difference between the American Bill of Rights and the French Rights of Man ,is that the former is unconcerned with the society, and the latter makes its principles and even most of its negative rights contingent on social harmony.
Consider the difference between the Declaration of Independence’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and the Declaration of the Rights of Man’s “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.” Or between defining natural rights as being “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or as “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”
The American formula was that equality could be derived from liberty as an unrestricted society is also a free one. In France, liberty from equality, making it necessary that a society must be forced to be equal for it to be free. But France’s efforts to create liberty from equality failed over and over again as each wave of reform ended in bloodshed and tyranny.
The social harmony route, liberty through equality, leads to endless people’s revolutionists and reformist regimes that always fail, and in their failure lead to tyranny. It has already bankrupted the United States and the European Union and the enormous governments that have done it are swiftly turning into tyrannies.