Positive rights are rights or guarantees to certain things, as opposed to negative rights which are the rights from certain things, usually freedoms from abuse or coercion by others.
For example, a right to an education is a positive right because education must be provided by a series of positive actions by others. A school system, teachers and materials must be actively provided in order for such a right to be fulfilled. The right to be secure in one's home, however, is a negative right. In order for it to be fulfilled, others need take no particular action but merely refrain from certain actions, specifically trespassing or breaking into the home in question.
Different political philosophies have different opinions concerning positive and negative rights. Under socialism and social democracy, positive rights are considered an essential part of the social or governmental contract: something that society promises to all its members. Under these philosophies there need be no particular distinction between positive or negative rights, rather they tend to be all listed together.
Libertarians and other critics of the notion of positive rights hold that positive rights could only be guaranteed to any one person by abridging the negative rights of others. For instance, if a citizen had the right to a house, this would imply that if he did not produce or obtain a house for himself that others would be compelled to provide one for him. This is not an ethical compulsion (others should provide a house out of charity) but rather political compulsion: the state must require others to provide a house (usually by taxation under threat of imprisonment). This political compulsion, they hold, necessarily contravenes the existence of a (negative) right to private property. If one person's property may rightly be taken to pay for someone else's house, then the first person cannot be said to have a right to that property.
Many positive rights are economic in nature: they involve the rights-holder being assured of the provision of some economic good such as housing, a job, a pension, or medicine. Under most systems of social democracy, these are provided under some manner of public welfare system, in which public funds are used to establish public housing, works programs, social security, and the like.
In contrast, negative rights are usually not directly economic in nature, although the right to security in private property is considered an economic negative right in that it entails freedom from theft or state confiscation. Other negative rights include freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, freedom from violent crime and freedom from involuntary servitude.