Imagine a hellish landscape. Think of Detroit. Picture the hollow, flaking buildings with graffiti scrawled over them and weeds growing through the pavement. Picture the needles, the crack pipes, the spent shell casings. Picture the thousands of smashed out windows. No, this isn’t a television ad to make you feel sorry for inner-city black children. The black community can blame itself for Detroit. The point I’m trying to make is that when a sensible man thinks of good government, he does not think of Detroit.
He might think of other places, of course. He might think of stately Corinthian pillars or the mirrors of Versailles. If he were feeling especially ironic he might think of Capitol Hill. For a more exotic twist, he might imagine the old emperors of China and their silk banners and seasonal palaces. Whatever he imagines, suffice it to say, he won’t be thinking of a place with crackheads mooching outside of a liquor store.
Good government is rooted in authority, and authority is rooted in good imagery.
This isn’t just a pet theory of mine; there’s science behind this. In a 1982 paper, two sociologists named Wilson and Kelling published what has come to be called the “broken windows” theory of criminology. If an abandoned building at the end of the block has a broken window that doesn’t get repaired, it can invite more broken windows. The shattered glass in turn invites the local graffito to spray his girlfriend’s name over the wall. She’ll have three other children with three other men after he gets thrown in prison, but he’s too young and far too dumb to know that. The gathered graffiti invites squatters. The squatters inevitably draw in the prostitutes, the crack fiends, the gang wars. As the dominoes fall, one small sign of decay invites a dozen others, not just by attracting the kind of people who are comfortable with disorder, but by driving out those who are inclined to be orderly.
Normally I don’t pay much attention to sociologists. I’d probably rather listen to sheep bleat. But unlike most theories dreamed up by nasally professors, the broken windows theory has been put into practice and worked.
In 1993, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed an acolyte of Kelling, a man named William J. Bratton, to serve as police commissioner. Together the two men knuckled down on public drunkenness, graffiti, fare dodging, illegal nightclubs, and panhandling. They went after everything New York had become famous for. As it turned out, the new policy was strikingly effective: not just petty crime, but all crime in New York City declined for more than ten years.
This has ruffled the undies of more than one soy boy commentator. At first glance, a leftist ought to love the broken windows theory because it appears to make men powerless. Men seem to be mere products of their environment; the more broken windows, the more innocent black men who could have been brain surgeons will get thrown in jail. One of the most common dogmas of the left is their pig-headed belief that men are born a blank slate, a tabula rasa, and so if a man is evil, it’s due to his circumstances. So why isn’t the left fawning over the brain child of Wilson and Kelling?
The first reason is one that I mentioned already. The theory does not stipulate that the drafty windows and dilapidated buildings lead to crime; it could just as easily be assumed that those who are criminally inclined will be attracted to such places. It’s the pollen that lures the bees, or the jewel that unmasks the thief, so to speak.
The second reason is that the theory vindicates norms that the scruffy-headed, free-bleeding left would rather not see vindicated. Graffiti, like those tattoos on the neck of your local Whole Foods cashier, is not just another form of cultural expression: it’s a sign of a disorderly mind, the kind of mind that brings about social degradation. The squeegee man on the corner isn’t just trying to make ends meet, he’s most likely a crackhead looking for a quick fix. The woman snorting coke in a nightclub bathroom probably ought to be settling down with a man, having kids, and tucking them in at that hour of the night. The theory makes it clear that communities work best with traditional values, not the kind of values pushed by mewing social justice warriors. Family, church, country clubs, fresh-cut lawns, open windows and unlocked doors — the stuff dreams are made of.
The last reason is that Rudy Giuliani was a Republican. The left hates it when the other side does well because, to the ideologue, his struggle with us has to be all-or-nothing.
Needless to say, a battalion of Sterns and Bergs, doctrinaire professors, and know-nothing journalists have started firing their howitzers at the broken windows theory. It’s racist, of course, like all things these days, because it affects black neighborhoods more than white ones. It’s elitist. It’s bigoted. It’s Hitler. One of their more humorous claims is that cracking down on petty crimes works briefly and then results in a defiant upsurge in convictions for those crimes later.
Singapore canes people for spitting excessively on the street, and to date it has not reported any spates of defiant saliva chuckers. Getting hit by a rattan cane hurts, after all. Nor has Pyeongyang had to arrest too many people for loitering. The few who do are never heard from again. That puts a real damper on the idea of standing on the corner with a squeegee. No, strict laws, strictly enforced don’t lead to sudden and mysterious spikes in crime. That’s more likely to be seen with laissez-faire law enforcement.
Anyway, what is it about the broken windows theory that’s so captivating? It’s not because I care about New York, you could stake your life on that. It’s not because I have any interest in cleaning up black neighborhoods, either. I think it fascinates me because it exemplifies a principle so fundamental to human nature that people tend to overlook it; at least, modern people, raised in the social justice milieu of the post-fascist West. The people of the past were not quite as confused on this matter. Authority, if it is to be an authority at all, must respect itself as an authority.
The West is struggling with this simple truth. A police station with flaking paint and prostitutes milling around outside is a station that sends one message to the world: we do not believe in ourselves. Parents who ask their children how they should be punished say one thing: we do not believe in ourselves. A neighborhood that never sweeps up shattered beer bottles and never mends potholes: no belief.
The left and right are split most clearly in their level of self-confidence. The right-wing is authority that recognizes its own importance and also its responsibilities. The left-wing is a nagging, impetuous doubt of authority. It’s always the same ethic, reimagined and reinterpreted for the times, but ultimately the same: the haves versus the have-nots. The aristocrat, the have, stomps his shiny boots on the peasant, the have-not. The white man takes his whip to the black man. The straight man oppresses the non-conforming genderless she-whale. Historically, this theory is all smoke and mirrors but it makes for good theater.
The left-wing must doubt all authority, even its own. If one of these have-not groups were to seize power the clockwork would spin mechanically to the next target. If a black nationalist party murdered or frightened away every last white man in South Africa, the left would immediately begin with the rich-black versus poor-black dichotomy. Or maybe dark-blacks versus light-blacks. If the blubbery she-whales took over at Yale the various forms of gender non-conforming people would turn on each other, like those with blue hair versus those with braids. It never ends. It never relents. Liberalism is the politics of disharmony.
And if the problem is always the same, the solution is the same, too. Egalitarianism, the great cudgel of the left, is always there to break up good order and harmony. Pull back the silk screen that the left uses to shield their ideas and you find nothing but knives and chains.
The liberal longs for pacifism. But he’ll never campaign to disarm your enemies, he just wants to disarm you. The liberal longs for racial justice. But he’ll bend every law in the book on behalf of his preferred color. The liberal longs for worker’s rights. But he’ll trample the employer’s property rights for a few pennies’ worth of compensation. The liberal longs for gender equality. But he’ll never admit that women are miserable without families and they certainly won’t be opening any peanut butter jars.
The liberal agenda is the cold kiss of the void. His pacifism leaves you vulnerable to invaders. His sense of justice overturns law. His economics is the economics of robbery. His gender equality is the death knell of the family. If you think this is hyperbole, if you think I’m being unreasonable or unfair to the left, just look at Detroit. Or any major American city today.
It’s the same illness, the same medicine, and the same quack doctor rushing there to treat it. What chance does America stand when this is the same disease that leveled Rome, carved up the British Empire, and murdered the Romanovs?
I can’t answer that question. But I can begin to see a solution, dimly, somewhere out there in the misty regions of history.
Maybe it’s time to set aside our apologies and guilt. Maybe it’s time to start cleaning up our streets again.