Explain the concepts of negative and positive rights, and identify supporters of each theory.
Negative rights are rights to be free from things being done to you. Positive rights of the rights to be free to do things.
Teachers often express this to their students as a freedom from and a freedom to.
Robert Long says negative rights build fences around you while positive rights break the fences down. In other words negative rights protect you from others interfering with you while positive rights allow you to do things.
Many Americans argue today that all Americans have the right to healthcare. This would be a positive right, saying everyone has the right to receive the care they need to remain healthy and alive.
Their opponents say that this right goes too far. They say that we have a right to be free from the government interfering with health care. This would be a negative right.
Another example would be the positive right that Sam has to free speech. He gains the right to say what he wishes. On the other hand, Joe has the right to be free from terrorist threats. This is a negative right. It prevents others from doing something to Joe. So Sam's positive right to free speech is limited because he cannot violate the negative right of John to not receive terrorist threats.
You might think that everyone would agree that there are both negative and positive rights, but this is not so. Various philosophers have emphasized one as superior to the other, and even denied that the other exists.
Supporters of negative rights:
The economist Hayek and his supporters say the only true freedom is our freedom from. They believe in a government so minimalist that it becomes almost an anarchy, that is, no government. Hayek has expressed his belief that it is necessary for economies to collapse completely, and even entire governments to collapse and fail. He says this is the only way to get a truly effective government, the bad ones will collapse and die while the good ones will continue to exist and thrive.
Ronald Reagan, when he became president, stated his intention was to shrink government. He clearly intended to reverse the direction of American government and return it to the state it had been in prior to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He believed that Hayek was correct and that government should be small and emphasize protecting Americans' negative rights while paying little attention to their positive rights, at least to those positive rights not specifically listed in the Constitution.
The presidents who followed him also supported this position. Even Democrat Bill Clinton said, "the era of big government is over."
In general, libertarians, conservatives, Republicans and members of the Tea Party, strongly emphasize negative rights. This is not to say that they totally ignore positive rights, but they certainly do emphasize negative rights as the primary function of government. A few of them do go so far as to deny that positive rights have any real value. That is, some of the more extreme members of these groups believe that any positive rights an individual has should be protected by that individual, and are not the business of the government.
Supporters of positive rights:
The economist Keynes believes that government must exert an effective control on economies in order to prevent the collapse of those economies, and possibly of those societies. He believes that governments should act to keep themselves functioning effectively. In other words, one of the main functions of government is to provide protection for the positive rights of its citizens.
For the first time in American history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt emphasized positive rights beyond negative rights. He completely changed the course of American government. Prior to him, most people agreed that the government's role should be small and very limited. That is, it should emphasize negative rights. Since Roosevelt, the emphasis has been on the government ensuring that people get positive rights. Programs like Medicare and Social Security are examples.
Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson carried on this effort, especially in the area of civil rights. Their landmark legislation in these areas showed they believed the government should protect the positive rights of Americans.
When Barack Obama became president, his declaration was that America should be emphasizing positive rights and their protection. His clear intent was to stop the so-called Reagan revolution and restore America to a course which would follow the positive rights approach of FDR.
In general, liberals, socialists, progressives, and other left-wing groups strongly emphasize positive rights. This is not to say that they ignore negative rights, but they think positive rights should be the main focus of government action.
John Stuart Mill made arguments in support of both positions. Many other philosophers would agree with him that the two are not mutually contradictory, but that should be maintained in a balance between the two.
That's pretty much my position. I think it's wrong to emphasize one over the other. After all, to take an example from physics, you can't have an atom without both negative and positive charges in a state of balance.