A Logical System of Justice?

My 10th grade class, which studies the historical narrative from circa 1600 to 1865 with a focus on Western Civilization (Europe and the Americas), has been spending some time studying the history of Anglo-British law as it developed through the Middle Ages and up through the Glorious Revolution, forming much of what was called English Common Law. I’ve already discussed some of this history briefly in an earlier post.

And in the course of our learning, I teach them that the U.S. judicial system of not based on a system of reparation. (And to note, it was not entirely so in Great Britain, either, as time went on. British royalty increasingly was quite prone to assume that they were the source of law, and the highest levels of the English judicial system were originally appointed by the king and carried his mandate. And when many of the colonists rebelled in 1765-1783, many were doing so on the basis that the English authorities were abandoning their traditional principles. And if you subscribe to my email, my upcoming email begins with an example of a jury trial condemning an English Catholic to death for refusing to admit that the king was the head of the church.)

Understandably, they are surprised. Nobody has presented law in this way before, and it seems so straight-forward to them.

I’ve been teaching them about the difference between negativism and positivism. Negativism (from which are derived negative rights, as I discuss in this post) is the idea that law comes before and outside of government. The opposite is positivism, which says law comes from government … if it is legislated to be wrong (or right), then it is wrong (or right). Negativism says it is wrong to steal, regardless of what the government says. Positivism says it is wrong to steal because the government says it is wrong.

The implication? In the development of English law through the Middle Ages onward, most law, accordingly, was developed through litigation (the legal process) instead of legislation (the law-making process) as negativism was the presumption. If someone was robbed, they could be provided compensation even without a law saying that stealing was wrong. And the guilty party was forced to pay reparations.

And this is where my students can see something obvious. If negativism is the presumption, then the person wronged has to be compensated. If I steal my neighbor’s truck, then I owe him…a truck. That’s called reparation. If I sell that truck and then don’t have money for a new one, then I make reparation by working until my wages have fully compensated my neighbor.

Seems like a logical approach to justice, right? Even the judicial system of the Mosaic Law given to the Hebrews as they left Egypt was built almost entirely on reparations. The person harmed was to be repaid by the guilty party.

That’s not what we have in the United States.

In the United States legal code, the government is essentially always the party that is wronged. It is the government that receives “reparation”.

If I am guilty of extortion, the U.S. system of justice requires that I pay the government a fine and spend time in prison, based on its own assessment of the crime, rather than the extent of the harm. And that money doesn’t go to my neighbor. It goes to the government. The law doesn’t require reparation to the party harmed (who will usually only get compensated if they had the right insurance), as assumed by negativism. Rather, it  treats the government like the harmed party, based on an assumption of positivism.

And yes, there are exceptions. People can file suit for reparation of damages. Unfortunately, this is inaccessible for most people given how high legal and lawyer fees are. But why are fees so high? Because the convoluted system of laws that requires an army of lawyers and their aids to navigate through.

The U.S. legal system as it is today is based on positivism. The laws are not based on negativism, based on natural rights outside of government. If the government wants to take one person’s property and give it to another because thinks the second person would make “better” use of it, then they can. The Supreme Court said so in Kelo v. City of New London (2005).

The main question I want to be drawn from this is: where do laws come from? Do you believe in negativism, which assumes a standard of right and wrong outside of government? Or do you believe in positivism, which says the government is the standard of right and wrong? And what are the implications for the system of justice?

Something to think about.