The fundamental difference between a free society and a nanny state, is that in a free society, negative rights are maximized between the individual and the government, and the individual and other individuals. In a nanny state, positive rights are maximized between the individual and the government, and both positive and negative rights are maximized between the individual and other individuals.
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.
In a nanny state, the positive rights gained are more than offset by the negative rights lost. And the most fundamental of those negative rights is the freedom to change the laws and the rulers. When a nation is ruled by unelected collectives based out of major cities, by bureaucrats who remain while elected officials come and go, and by activists who always claim to represent the people-- then the system cannot be changed, by changing elected officials. Not when it is the system itself that is the problem.
Social harmony means that not only must the state bulk up its interaction with the individual through positive rights-- but that it must also do so in the relationships between ordinary people. Accordingly everyone suddenly gets the right not to be offended, except when the offense is for the greater good. Sensitivity comes to matter more than anything else, because the goal is harmony, not the right of the individual. Bad thoughts are no longer wrong, they are first shunned and then criminalized.
"Live and let live," is at the heart of negative rights. But positive rights are based on, "Let's discuss what you need to do to change." Since there are always problems, there is always change, which creates new problems, which also need to be discussed. This relationship between the people and the government, and all the different sub-groups into which the society is now divided, requires constant evaluation.
New positive rights are always emerging that obligate people to act in harmony with some new reform consensus. And even negative rights are defined down until they blur into positive rights. Real grievances give way to a sense of dissatisfaction, to being annoyed by the slightest things and demanding that some authority figure intervene to make it right. In this way negative rights on the individual level become indistinguishable from positive rights as all individual rights come down to a mandate to respect the feelings of everyone else.
The pursuit of social harmony begins with one collective that fragments into smaller collectives which are innately disharmonious. Pursuing social cohesion through dissension is a contradiction in terms, but it's a recurring pattern. As the smaller collectives are recognized as more moral than the society as a whole, because they oppressed or pursuing a politically correct goal, social harmony is redefined as a majority deferring to a minority.
A moral society then becomes defined as an immoral society which defers to moral minorities. If the moral minorities campaign for a cleaner environment, it becomes the job of the majority to work extra and pay more in order to give them one. If they want social benefits, it's the job of the majority to give them that too. Push this formula far enough and you end up with tyranny.
In France, half a century of pandering to angry Parisian underclass mobs with subsidized benefits ended with the June Days Uprisings over subsidized makework jobs, which helped bring an end to the Second Republic. The issue at that point was no longer equality or poverty, it was the angry mob as a tool of political change that had to be appeased at the expense of the general population.
The angry mob had become the revolutionary praetorian guard of positive rights, bringing down governments, and drowning the political process in blood. Its modern day counterparts serve the same purpose. The union is just the angry mob that receives patronage from liberal politicians and pays it back to them. But there are less formal arrangements, the professional activists who are always demanding more, are acting out the same role.
An ideal society is impossible and inequities create a permanent constituency for change. Farming those inequities creates an activist class that works for the oligarchy that profits from the change. The change creates new inequities and conservative constituencies for change, with mirror image results. What follows is an endless conflict in which things get worse and worse, in which society keeps changing, but rarely for the better.
The massive structure never gets fixed, but each generation of politicians adds to it and modifies it in its own way. New passages are always being constructed in the structure, as others are being closed. The full secrets of it are only known to the unelected officials who actually work there, who know how everything can be bypassed for the right reasons and how to navigate a constantly expanding structure.
This is the pyramid of positive rights, built by slave labor at great expense for reasons that are not served by its construction. It is a monument to greed and folly, intellectual and moral decadence, and faith in social reform above all else. It rises to the sky where radicals are allowed to gain power and transforms the country into a dysfunctional version of their vision. An egotistical cry that here stands the Great Society, even as at its foot, the slaves begin to talk of rebellion.