Decency

By George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson

In thinking about the American idea, we decided to revisit a concept we first took up in these pages 25 years ago.

Return to:

The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

Americans value both order and freedom, and drawing a line between the two is no easy task. This may seem especially true where the more routine aspects of public order are concerned: How much freedom must be sacrificed in order to have quiet streets free of graffiti, aggressive panhandlers, prostitutes, and teenage gangs? Taken alone, few of these kinds of disorder constitute major crimes—but taken together, they deeply worry people who want to go about their public business secure in the sense that our society, and not some disorderly faction within it, controls public spaces.

In 1982, we argued in this magazine that the police should take public disorder as seriously as they take criminal conduct. We urged them to resume doing what was once one of their major tasks: constraining the public activity of drunks, panhandlers, prostitutes, and gangs. And to this should be added a new assault on graffiti.

We suggested two rationales for this change: First, people feel threatened by public disorder; second, the chance that greater order would reduce crime rates. The first statement is obviously true; the second was a conjecture that has still been only partially tested.

Community order, we argued, would bring decent people back on the streets and discourage criminals from using public places; certain kinds of crimes (assault, robbery, and auto theft), therefore, would subsequently decline.

Virtually all of the evidence we have from studies of the police suggests that restoring order is associated with a drop in crime. This is reassuring, but it may not be conclusive. The idea has never been fully tested.

Public order is achieved neither by leaving alone everyone who is not a serious criminal nor by harassing everyone who uses the streets; it is achieved by a combination of family training, neighborhood norms, and official constraints that induce people to follow widely shared rules of behavior. Social science cannot settle the question of how much order ought to be maintained; that is a question of morality and politics. In this country, the public’s view seems quite clear: People believe, we think rightly, that it is a good thing if routine misconduct is discouraged by the gentle action of opinion and authority. It is rarely necessary to arrest an aggressive drunk, a rowdy gang member, or a graffiti artist; it is usually sufficient to discourage them by firm reminders. True freedom is encouraged by an environment of public decency and discouraged by one of neglect and disorder.

Decency in public places may be only a small part of the American idea, but especially for those people living in dangerous, gang-ridden neighborhoods, it is an important one.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/11/decency/306292/