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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Other Broken Window

Fallacy and hypothesis.

My first article for TheFreemanOnline dealt with the “broken window fallacy.”  But in the literature on social theory, there’s actually another important idea that also uses the metaphor of a “broken window.”

In his comment on The Freeman’s Facebook page, Flavio Ortigao raised this point when he wrote:

…I do not quite follow the putative analogy with broken windows theory. In many case[s] “broken windows” has been used as an analogy for the necessity of not allowing the degradation of public space/utilities. Inferring that there is a psychological effect that compounds the problem. I think [it] is very important that cities do not surrender to vandalism. This has little to do with the situation of Haiti, struck by a natural disaster.

Mr. Ortigao is right.  The idea to which he refers does not directly relate to the Haitian earthquake or to other situations in which destruction is supposed to create wealth.  That’s a different “broken window.”

The typical way to commit the broken-window fallacy is to argue that a natural disaster, war, or economic crisis is actually good for an economy. The idea is that if the event causes an increase in spending on infrastructure or war materiel or what-have-you, the “new” demand will stimulate the economy and create more wealth than there would have been otherwise.  But that’s not what Mr. Ortigao is referring to.

One of the articles I assign to my students is George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s “Broken Windows” (1982) in which they say:  “…one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.”  This would also apply to trash left on the sidewalk or drunks sleeping on benches, that sort of thing.  And because “disorder and crimes are inextricably linked,” a community that tolerates minor infractions of civility or small violations of social order signals to potential law-breakers that more serious crimes will be tolerated.

By the same token, effectively addressing minor social problems is said to prevent more serious problems.  Thus in the 1990s when the Giuliani administration in New York City cracked down on fare-beaters on the subway and “squeegee men” on the streets, it claimed this helped reduce the incidence of violent crime.

So the broken-window fallacy and the broken-window hypothesis are quite different.  It may not seem strange then that, as Mr. Ortigao’s comment illustrates, people who have heard of the one tend not to know of the other.  That’s been my experience, anyway.

Complementary Analyses

But I think this is a little strange because I believe a classical liberal should find them complementary.  That’s because both the fallacy and the hypothesis offer solid arguments against some forms of harmful intervention.  Clearly, the BW fallacy does.

The BW hypothesis can be and has been used (as in the case of the Giuliani administration) to support a “get tough on crime” policy, which may not be particularly libertarian.  But there is a deeper lesson here.

The one that I draw from Kelling and Wilson is that, when it comes to maintaining social order, it’s important to understand the underlying social relations in a community – what Nathan Glazer called “the fine structure of society.”  These are the norms that guide behavior and the networks that help enforce them, which emerge spontaneously in a neighborhood.

Whether you quickly mend a broken window, bend over to pick up a piece of trash, or intervene when someone disturbs the peace depends in part on your personal ethics, of course.  But it also depends very much on whether your neighbors will applaud or laugh at you for doing it.  In a healthy neighborhood, if you don’t repair your window, one way or another your neighbors will let you know about it.

The support or approbation you get from the community for doing something that may not be in your immediate interest is an important incentive to follow local norms and help to enforce civility.  When that weakens, so does voluntary enforcement of local norms and relations.  That’s usually when citizens try to address public-safety problems by, for example, demanding more police on the streets instead of more private or voluntary effort.

Such interventions have a way of undermining the fine-structure of society.  For example, when Robert Moses, so-called “master builder of New York,” leveled thriving neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal,” he made those places significantly poorer and more dangerous.  (The standard reference here is Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.)  Something similar happens when policies crowd out individual responsibility and initiative, as when the welfare state tries to provide for the elderly and infirm or the supervision of children, rather than leaving the primary responsibility with neighbors, friends, relatives, and local social networks.

Whatever the temporary benefits to a given group may be, it fosters a mindset that is more willing to accept or even demand more interventions to address social problems (many of which were themselves created by prior interventions) that might otherwise have been solved by voluntary action.  This in turn makes informal, previously vital relations among people seem superfluous.

Both the fallacy and the hypothesis are well worth studying.

  • 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.