Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Broken Window Theory, in Reverse

...disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

The essence of The Broken Window Theory is that the little things matter. When disorder is allowed to gain a foothold it perpetuates and accelerates. Individuals living in a community of broken windows feel powerless. (There's no way they can fix all those windows themselves.) This leads to isolation and suspicion and the downward spiral continues.

This post on the Chicago Board of Alderman outlawing little plastic baggies got me thinking of the power of little things. When we see our elected government use their powers of ordinance to try to regulate something as mundane as the zip-lock, we rightly jeer. We know this ordinance will not be enforced. Can you imagine an officer going through the time and trouble of making an arrest and filling out the paperwork for a "plastic" bust? Since we know that this law will not be enforced (it just gives the elected official the illusion that he is "doing something" about crime) we loose another increment of respect for the law.

An anonymous comment to that post sneered, "It's nice to see the right focused on the big issues of our times. Pass me a "baggie" i'm gonna hurl little chunks of minutia." And that is precisely the point. When senseless and useless laws proliferate each new law weakens respect for all the existing laws. When everything is against the law, everyone is a criminal so why bother? Rather than fix the broken window, we'll just hang curtains.
[Click on the title above, or date stamp below, to see the full article.]


  1. Yup.

    The 'Broken Window Theory' was the way Giuliani approached crime in NY - he understood that criminals are like any other sort of predator, in that they'll go where the hunting is easy - a condition plainly obvious to anyone with eyes, since "If the people here don't even care enough to clean up the glass - they're not going to care if I'm here either".

    For every predator, there are still dangers or even other predators - and predators like to hunt where they have a better chance of getting away with their game - where they feel safe.

    "Plastic Baggies"? ....No.

    Make the environment less inviting, and the predators will feel less invited.

    - MuscleDaddy

  2. It's not really "in reverse". Passing stupid laws that no one will obey, because at some level they recognize that the laws are illegitimate intrusions on individual liberty, shares with failure to enforce legitimate laws the same defining characteristic:
    "disorder is allowed to gain a foothold"

    Remember Prohibition? Making alcohol illegal didn't make it go away. It excluded all transactions around it from civilized society. In order to have a drink, one had to consort with organized crime bosses. It created Al Capone. And we learned nothing.

    The War on (Some) Drugs has created huge inner-city zones in which there is no law, and precious little order, ruled by neighborhood warlords not unlike those in Somalia or the tribal regions of Afghanistan.

    Those who report or testify, even on malum per se crimes such as burglary, robbery, rape, and murder, are "snitches", and subject to violent retaliation. So these crimes go unpunished, destroying the environment necessary for prosperity.

  3. Monster, Yeah.
    Maybe "Fixing Broken Windows... With a Hammer" would be a better title.

  4. I wrote a piece I entitled "Civil Disobedience" a few years ago complaining about the "rule of law" mantra, which covered the subject of prolific laws undermining respect for all laws. It included my case that we are all criminals, and it could not be otherwise:

    "As rational beings, awash in a sea of ridiculous and often contradictory laws, the fact that something is “against the law” is frankly irrelevant. To function normally in this overregulated society, we each must choose for ourselves which laws we will obey, and which we will ignore. Whether we realize it or not, when we encounter an inconvenient “law,” intended to prevent us from engaging in a desired activity, we summarily run it through rational filters to decide whether to abide or disregard it:

    "First, is it against our morals? If so, the law is redundant, but if not: What are the chances of getting caught? Although we often fool ourselves, Americans are pretty good at assessing the odds and looking over our shoulders. One or two traffic stops a year isn’t bad odds for speeding every day of our lives.

    "Next, what is the price we must pay if we do get caught? Inconvenience, insurance rates, shame, fine, jail, etc. – compared with the benefit we expect to derive at this moment for flouting it.

    "Finally, can we afford the price, and are we willing to pay it? It is that simple, and we each go through it subconsciously countless times every day."

    My apologies in advance to Orrin, for I suspect you may take issue with some of the piece, it is less than complementary toward your profession, and it mentions that unmentionable - Jury Nullification. :) ◄Dave►


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