Broken Window Theory

The superstition that if minor infractions are aggressively repressed, more serious crime will decrease. Nowadays, this is associated with Rudy Giuliani’s brutal tenure as mayor of New York City, during which the New York Police Department grew to be one of the largest standing armies in the world so as to crack down on graffiti and subway fare evasion; but the theory originally appeared in an article by James Wilson and George Kelling:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

There you have it—it’s not poverty or homelessness that causes people to become squatters, arsonists, or larcenists, but unrepaired windows. Similarly, Western thinkers as prestigious as Aristotle once believed in spontaneous generation—that aphids arise from the dew that falls on plants, fleas from putrid matter, mice from dirty hay, and so on.

In an interesting twist, ever since the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, anarchists appear to be operating on the same premise: if only a few windows can be broken, revolutionary struggle is bound to break out. In case of emergency, break glass.