George Floyd and Generalized Justice

Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was tried for the crime of second-degree unintentional murder under Minnesota law. The essential questions of fact for the jury were whether Chauvin actually caused George Floyd’s death, and whether he did so while committing a felony offense with force. Quoted below is the relevant Minnesota criminal statute:

609.19 MURDER IN THE SECOND DEGREE.

Subd. 2.Unintentional murders.

Whoever does either of the following is guilty of unintentional murder in the second degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 40 years:

(1) causes the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense other than criminal sexual conduct in the first or second degree with force or violence or a drive-by shooting; or

(2) causes the death of a human being without intent to effect the death of any person, while intentionally inflicting or attempting to inflict bodily harm upon the victim, when the perpetrator is restrained under an order for protection and the victim is a person designated to receive protection under the order. As used in this clause, “order for protection” includes an order for protection issued under chapter 518B; a harassment restraining order issued under section 609.748; a court order setting conditions of pretrial release or conditions of a criminal sentence or juvenile court disposition; a restraining order issued in a marriage dissolution action; and any order issued by a court of another state or of the United States that is similar to any of these orders.

The media’s insatiable drive to portray Floyd’s death as proof of a deeply racist society was both decidedly wrong and enormously harmful. Public statements outrageously made before the verdict by the Minneapolis mayor, several members of Congress, and even President Joe Biden fall into the same category. Was the verdict just, given the facts, or was the jury influenced by the threat of a conflagration across American cities had they acquitted? We may never know. But we do know the one thing that might actually have produced some good—a sober examination into Minneapolis police practices—was utterly subsumed by atavistic journalists hell bent on turning a local story into a national one. That story tells us more about their perceptions and biases than it does about racism in America.

In stark contrast, the trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia received scant national media coverage. That was a “local matter.” It’s not hard to understand why. Narratives rule our lives, and they have little to do with justice.

As usual, Americans were watching at least two different movies. One features a beleaguered police officer dealing with a recalcitrant suspect who was resisting arrest. The suspect had titanic levels of the opioid fentanyl in his system, perhaps enough to kill him. And he was no choir boy, having participated in a gang robbery of a pregnant woman at gunpoint. So even if the cop went too far and it’s unfortunate the perp died, it wasn’t murder—and Floyd probably was a rotten criminal anyway.

The highlight reel playing across town, however, shows a different tale. A bigoted cop jammed his knee into the neck of a handcuffed black man, killing him with impunity in a gross display of everything wrong with racist American justice. White supremacist America still can’t come to terms with equality, and thus we still have indiscriminate police killings of unarmed black men.

Both of these narratives rely on generalized or cosmic justice rather than specifics on the ground. Chauvin was not tried for racism, slavery, Jim Crow, or some vague notion of America’s racial sins. America was not on trial, white people were not on trial. Spinning the story into a broader general narrative to fuel race obsession was hardly designed to alleviate racial problems. It was designed to inflame them.

Justice is specific, not general. It is individual, not cosmic. In its best form, however imperfect, it is localized, temporal, dispassionate, and rooted in particularized restitution rather than punishment. It is impartial, hence Lady Justice’s blindfold. All of this used to be broadly understood as basic and essential to a liberal justice system. Injustice happens to people, in terms of their physical bodies and property—not to groups or society. Even Rawls, no libertarian, differentiated between what he saw as justice for institutions and justice for particular justice relating to particular individual actions.

But justice requires some sense of shared understanding among people, some recognition of agreed-upon values. What are those values in America today? What will replace Christian notions of morality and justice in secular America? The Left’s answer is egalitarianism, aggressively managed by the state. The Right’s answer is AWOL. The better answer is social cooperation through markets and civil society, coupled with a common law system of evolving harms and remedies. Mises said, “The notion of justice makes sense only when referring to a definite system of norms which in itself is assumed to be uncontested and safe against any criticism.” Justice, unlike economics, requires normative prescriptions to produce more cooperation and less harm. Yet our political and media class seems determined to destroy any sense of commonality or even objective reality.

There is no social justice, racial justice, or justice for historical deeds. The hard fact for race-obsessed progressives is this: egalitarianism is incompatible with justice precisely because it requires unequal treatment and a slippery slope of generalized context for specific injuries. Applying group identity in the courtroom will lead to disastrous consequences for America, and one wonders whether those consequences are actually the goal of our sick politicians and journalists.

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