When Authorities Smash Windows
In a satirical piece on the differences between school fifty years ago and school nowadays, which has been circulating on the Internet for a while, a boy named Jack goes quail hunting before school and pulls into his school’s parking lot with his shotgun in the gun rack.
In 1957, “the Vice Principal comes over, looks at Jack’s shotgun, goes to his car and gets his shotgun to show Jack.” In 2007, “School goes into lock-down, FBI called, Jack hauled off to jail and never sees his truck or gun again. Counselors called in for traumatized students and teachers.”
It’s a witty exaggeration, but not much of one. The piece includes seven similar comparisons, and interestingly, the humor in almost all of them is based upon a loss of trust.
There is a wisdom in this. A vice we dismiss as minor may do little harm on its own. But if it compromises trust—if it works to undo the fiber of relations that knit a people together—it can leave us in a shambles.
For there can be no genuine society without trust. In The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, written in 1958, the Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield noted that you can’t get anything so complex as a business off the ground when you aren’t reasonably sure of a moral orderliness and sobriety around you, when you can’t trust others to tell the truth, keep their promises, and not rob you when you’ve turned away.
You have to be sure that most of your workers will show up on time, that they will not clean out the till, that the local officials will treat your business fairly and not steer work to their cousins, and that local “businessmen” will not ask for protection money once you start to clear a profit.
But even in the society he examined—southern Italy—though you could not trust others to act in a way that helps develop a modern economy, you could trust that they would act in such a way as to make a stable and living culture. You could be sure that if Giovanni had his way with Filomena by force, Filomena’s brothers would see to it that he could never do such a thing again. If he seduced her and got her in trouble, the brothers would show up at his door to congratulate him on his upcoming nuptials.
In general, you could count on families to protect and promote their own. You could expect hospitality, some cleanliness, respect for the aged, and self-reliance.
What happens when you cannot trust others to act this way? What happens, for example, when the windows in a neighborhood are smashed and never fixed? Rudy Giuliani, no moralist, can tell you: Crime sets in. The causal arrow goes both ways: Where there’s crime, you’ll find broken windows, but, as George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote in “Broken Windows,” a famous essay in The Atlantic, where there are broken windows, there will be crime.
Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire. His many books include Sex in the Unreal City: The Demolition of the Western Mind, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a regular contributor to Chronicles, Crisis Magazine, The Claremont Review, Inside the Vatican Things, The Catholic Thing, and American Greatness. He has translated Dante's Divine Comedy. He is a Roman Catholic and lives with his wife in New Hampshire. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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