All Commentary
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On “Bourgeois Paternalism”

Last March the noted political scientist James Q. Wilson died at the age of 80. He is probably best known for developing, with George L. Kelling, the “broken-windows thesis” of law enforcement, which is not to be confused with Frédéric Bastiat’s similar-sounding “broken-window fallacy.” (I’ve written about the difference here.)

Wilson and Kelling’s thesis is based on the observation that “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” If that’s the message, then small violations of local social norms such as vandalism can pave the way for serious crimes such as robbery, or worse. To combat these perverse dynamics they recommended that local police shift their priorities away from crime-fighting as such and toward the protection of the community—its safety and well-being:

Above all, we must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities as well as individuals. Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses. Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police—and the rest of us—ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.

I’ve used their now-famous Atlantic magazine article for years in my course on the economy and culture of cities, where I emphasize the importance of social capital as well as economic liberty for fostering economic development.

A few weeks before Wilson’s death David Brooks, the well-known writer and political commentator, wrote a column for the New York Times, “The Materialist Fallacy,” on a similar theme without, however, mentioning Wilson explicitly. Actually, he was commenting on the latest book by the controversial sociologist Charles Murray, Coming Apart. I confess that I haven’t read the book, but from what I’ve read about it, including Brooks’s essay, Murray argues that the most ominous divide within American society is one not based on race (the subtitle of the book is The State of White America, 1960–2010) or on political ideology, but on culture. Today Americans who are working class and white, for example, have babies out of wedlock and get divorced at rates far higher than Americans among the white elite.

It wasn’t always so, Murray argues. Looking back to the early 1960s, the material differences between the wealthy and the working class didn’t translate so starkly into differences in behavior and moral values. He warns that today’s cultural divide, “if it continues, will end what has made America America.”

Now, against the theories of what ails America that are based on economic determinism (“liberal”), or that are government-centric (libertarian), or that center on the abandonment of traditional bourgeois norms (neoconservative), Brooks offers important research from the last 25 years that he claims Murray and his mostly left-wing critics ignore completely. (Of the three theories, Brooks reserves his harshest words for the first—economic determinism—which is why I suppose he, or his editor, titled the column “The Materialist Fallacy.”) Brooks writes:

 The recent research details how disruption breeds disruption. . . . It includes the diverse work on self-control . . . which shows, among other things, that people raised in disrupted circumstances find it harder to control their impulses throughout their lives. It includes the work of Annette Lareau . . . [who] shows that different social classes have radically different child-rearing techniques, producing different outcomes.

So for Brooks the problems are more cognitive and behavioral than simply economic, governmental, or moral. We come then to the crux of the matter: What is to be done?

Toward the end of his essay Brooks briefly states his preferred solution: “It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.”

He does not elaborate, although he may do so elsewhere.

Libertarians, as he notes, as well as neoconservatives like Nathan Glazer, think that government policies were the cause of the decline of the community ties and neighborly behavior that Glazer called the “fine structure of society.” One thing I took away from reading Charles Murray’s 1984 book, Losing Ground, is that sometimes the accumulated damage from government programs can be so profound that the underlying norms that support responsible behavior and social capital may not bounce back quickly after those programs are removed. And they may never come back. I guess what Brooks is saying is that in many places the working class is so messed up cognitively and behaviorally that government must “rebuild orderly communities” and “[build] organizations and structures.” But orderly by whose standard? And build by what methods?

It may seem that the Wilson-Kelling broken-windows thesis supports Brooks’s position. After all, Wilson and Kelling were writing about effective policing, which in most contemporary contexts means police empowered by the State. But what they say is that the most successful policing, often in the form of cops walking and not driving a beat, is about finding out what the norms of civility in a particular community are. In some neighborhoods, for example, it’s okay to play music in the street, while in others it isn’t. So they’re talking about enforcing existing community norms, not imposing norms that a community doesn’t have or no longer has.

Brooks doesn’t spell out what he means by bourgeois paternalism other than that it promotes responsibility and we need government to enforce it. Deirdre McCloskey argues in her 2007 book, Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, that capitalism (or as I prefer to call it, the free market) promotes the traditional seven virtues of faith, hope, love, justice, courage, temperance, and prudence. So perhaps Brooks is thinking along those lines—I just don’t know.

But here’s what I do know. Not only do markets depend on certain norms associated with bourgeois virtues, such as reciprocity and extending trust to strangers, but markets promote those very norms as well. Recent research, for instance, supports this connection between markets and trust.

While it may be possible to help foster the formation of social capital and the fine structure of society by effective policing (governmental or nongovernmental) or by the design of public spaces or by government’s getting out of the way and letting energetic people in the community repair the fine structures themselves, no government can create what can only emerge spontaneously. That includes genuine communities, warts and all, instead of unsustainable projects and “Disneyland neighborhoods.”

Markets—free markets—thrive only in the absence of intrusive government, and paternalism, even Brooks’s bourgeois paternalism, would be intrusive by definition. Paternalistic policies that promote an outsider’s concept of order, aka the Nanny State, may produce measurable outcomes more quickly, such as lower measured unemployment, crime, and divorces. On the other hand, healing a community by enabling freedom may take longer to produce visible results; the invisible social infrastructure of social capital is often hard to see even when it’s healthy. And what we do see may not look like our idea of “order” because sometimes it may entail having a baby outside marriage or getting a divorce or bowling alone.

But when it emerges from freedom, a living community stands a better chance of thriving and sustaining itself. That may take time, perhaps a very long time. But bourgeois virtues will reemerge only if people are left free to actually practice those virtues, or not, instead of having them paternalistically imposed on them.


This article first appeared at

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.