A point that I’ve tried to make before, but which may bear repeating since it’s Tax Day: the distinction between “positive” and “negative” rights, or liberty, is largely illusory–or at least not that important. Libertarians sometimes use this distinction to differentiate their position from “welfare” liberals. In the libertarian utopia, rights are guarantees against interference (negative) rather than claims on resources (positive). But this distinction starts to break down once you look closely at it.
As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, a right is essentially a person’s justified claim on society to protect her in the enjoyment of some good. Mill points out that personal security from physical harm or aggression is one of, if not the most, important of such rights since, without it, we can’t do much else. But note that this right, which some might clasify as “negative,” is, in fact, a claim on some portion of society’s resources. It takes resources (money, time, labor) to protect people’s security. Similar points could be made about access to courts, the protection of personal property, etc. So, a “negative” right is no less a claim on resources than a “positive” right.
So it turns out that the distinction between positive and negative rights is not an especially important one in determining the proper scope of government action. A better criteria might be the importance of the interest protected. Following Mill, we could say that physical safety from harm is one of the most important interests that should be protected by socially provided rights. But equally important–or nearly so–are our interests in having sufficient food, shelter, clothing, health care, educational opportunities, etc. If it’s legitimate to tax people to provide security, protect property rights, and ensure access to courts, why would it be illegitimate to tax for the provision of these other goods?