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From Fixing Broken Windows
(The Free Press, 1996)

Foreword by James Q. Wilson

The competing demands of liberty and community constitute a fundamental cleavage that divides contemporary political philosophers and has produced among the public at large the American culture war. The defenders of liberty envisage a world of autonomous individuals who freely choose their destinies and whose liberties are essential to personal development and social democracy. The advocates of community rejoin that no one is truly autonomous, that liberty can only exist in an environment of reasonable order, and that personal development requires familial and neighborhood support.

This cleavage is not coterminous with that between liberal and conservative. The supporters of liberty include libertarians who are market-oriented economic conservatives; the defenders of community include liberals who think that market forces are often destructive of communal life. John Rawls and Robert Nozick, though quite different in their attitudes toward government, are alike in basing their philosophies on freely choosing individuals. Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre, though perhaps in disagreement on many matters of public policy, are alike in viewing man as a social animal whose life derives meaning ftom its civic context.

On countless issues -- drug legalization, school prayer, reproductive rights, plant-closing laws, parental leave policy, crime-control strategies -- the competing claims of liberty and community are often heard. In this book, George Kelling and Catherine Coles explore this issue in perhaps its most common and vivid incarnation -- how and to what extent should public spaces be protected?

Every day, in most big cities and many small ones, we experience the problem. Homeless people asleep on a grate; beggars soliciting funds by the bus stop; graffiti on the bridge abutment; teenagers hanging out in front of the deli; loud music coming from an open window. How should conduct in public spaces be regulated, and by whom?

For the past three decades or so, the drift in public policy has been toward maximizing individual liberty and away from enforcing communal control. Public drunkenness has been decriminalized, the mentally ill have been deinstitutionalized, public solicitations have acquired broader constitutional protection. Many of these changes were the result, not of public debate or legislative effort, but of court decisions that have endowed individuals with more, or more readily enforced, rights.

Courts are institutions whose special competence lies in the discernment and application of rights. This means that to the extent courts decide matters, the drift of policy will tend to be toward liberty and away from community. The court will, typically, hear a case brought by (or on behalf of) an individual beggar, sleeper, or solicitor. Such an individual rarely constitutes much of a threat to anyone, and so the claims of communal order often seem, in the particular case, to be suspect or overdrawn.

But the effects on a community of many individuals taking advantage of the rights granted to an individual (or often, as the court sees it, an abstract, depersonalized individual) are often qualitatively different from the effects of a single person. A public space -- a bus stop, a market square, a subway entrance -- is more than the sum of its human parts; it is a complex pattern of interactions that can become dramatically more threatening as the scale and frequency of those interactions increase. As the number of unconventional individuals increases arithmetically, the number of worrisome behaviors increases geometrically.

And so the public complains -- of aggressive panhandlers, disheveled vagrants, and rude teenagers. The police have no easy response. To many of them, dealing with these minor disorders is not why they became law-enforcement officers; telling panhandlers to move on is a far cry from fighting crime. To all of them, any intervention brings the risk of adverse publicity, hostile law suits, and political debates in which, their experience tells them, rights are trumps. For nearly every kind of unconventional person there seems to be an advocacy group. Better, the police tell themselves, to pull back, do nothing. As a result, the police often fail to do even the minimal things that the courts have allowed. The public gets more upset, and the issue affects the outcome of a council or mayoral race.

For many years, George Kelling has studied this problem, advised public officials on how to cope with it, and evaluated their efforts to do so. In the process, he has become this country's preeminent authority on the problem of controlling disorderly conduct in public places. Until now, there has been no comprehensive treatment of what he has learned; now, here it is.

The title -- Fixing Broken Windows is an allusion to an essay Kelling and I published in The Atlantic Monthly in March 1982. We used the image of broken windows to explain how neighborhoods might decay into disorder and even crime if no one attends faithfully to their maintenance. If a factory or office window is broken, passersby observing it will conclude that no one cares or no one is in charge. In time, a few will begin throwing rocks to break more windows. Soon all the windows will be broken, and now passersby will think that, not only is no one in charge of the building, no one is in charge of the street on which it faces. Only the young, the criminal, or the foolhardy have any business on an unprotecred avenue, and so more and more citizens will abandon the street to those they assume prowl it. Small disorders lead to larger and larger ones, and perhaps even to crime.

A rights-oriented legal tradition does not easily deal with this problem. The judge finds it hard to believe that one broken window is all that important or that the police should be empowered to exert their authority on people who might break more windows. The judge sees a snapshot of the street at one moment; the public, by contrast, sees a motion picture of the street slowly, inexorably decaying.

Kelling has seen this process unfold and understands the competing values at stake. Through his research on the history of policing in America and his work advising public agencies, notably the New York City Transit Authority, he has learned how one can deal with the problem of order in public spaces at minimal cost in individual liberty. Coles has studied the law on this matter, and sets forth with admirable clarity its hopelessly unclear condition.

The result is a book that ought to be read by every police chief, mayor, community activist, and concerned citizen. It provides practical guidance on how to cope with a problem that many of us simply debate, in increasingly strident tones, as we express our outrage over the excesses of either radical individualism or conformist communalism.

We can reclaim our public spaces without sacrificing our essential liberties, but to do so many groups -- the courts, the police, and many public and private agencies -- must change how they think about these matters. Kelling and Coles tell them how.

  • Return to The Promise of Public Order: An Interview with George Kelling and Catherine Coles.

    Copyright © 1996 by James Q. Wilson. From Fixing Broken Windows, by George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles. Reprinted by arrangement with The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.