Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Late James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson (1931-2012), who has died at age 80, is best known for his “broken windows” theory of crime and policing.  Social order, he argued, requires constant attention to detail. Broken windows in a neighborhood send the signal that no one cares about maintaining an orderly environment and this encourages breakers of windows and rules to smash more of both, resulting in a steady disintegration of social order. To restore order, Wilson and his colleagues proposed community policing, a strategy that would take police out of patrol cars and put them into daily interaction with people in communities, so that police could become agents in rebuilding order.
Debate about the effectiveness of community policing continues. New York City did see its crime rates drop after police began to adopt some of Wilson’s ideas, but causation is difficult to determine.  I am sympathetic to the theory of “broken windows,” since it is one of the few modern social theories to recognize the importance and fragility of social order. But I wonder how much police can do to establish order. Part of my skepticism is based on agreement with another area of Wilson’s own work.
In The Moral Sense (1993), Wilson drew on biology and the social sciences to argue that human beings have an innate sense of morality. This sense, though, is not fixed; it is developed through social exchanges based on the interdependence of individuals.  The most fundamental interdependent relationships exist within families, which develop the innate moral sense (and therefore social order) through the socialization of children. Beyond families, friends and neighbors shape one another’s moral sense.
I think Wilson was largely right in this book, but that is exactly what raises questions for me about how much police can do. The broken windows of a neighborhood are symptoms of an underlying problem, the disintegration of basic social institutions. This is beyond anything that the police can handle. Living and working as I do in a city in which a significant portion of the population has fallen into a Hobbesian state of crime and violence, I see this as more than an academic question. You can replace a broken window. All the patrolmen can’t put a broken society together again.

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