The theory is simple: if a window gets broken in a neighborhood, and residents ignore it, other windows will probably get busted, too. It's the start of a series of low-level community problems that become more intractable as the busted window leads to graffiti, burglaries and then violent crimes.
The theory is attributed to prolific political scientist James Q. Wilson, who died today in Boston. He explained his "Broken Windows" views in a 1982 Atlantic essay co-authored with George L. Kelling:
"A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other's children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed. Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse. Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.
At this point it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly."
The broken window theory was embraced by several police departments, including New York City and Los Angeles, which beefed up citizen outreach and officer foot patrols. But Wilson's views weren't fully supported by other researchers; in fact, political scientist David Thacher of the University of Michigan showed that public housing residents who moved to less disadvantaged and disorderly communities experienced no change in crime rates.
Wilson never shied from controversial topics, explaining at length his opposition to affirmative action, why the federal bureaucracy both works and works for Americans, and the relationship between capitalism and morality. Several of his essays are collected on the National Affairs' website. He even mulled over ideas on solving city traffic congestion, on NPR's Day to Day.
He drew attention for his book, "The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families", in which he examined the effect of divorce and single parent families. PBS's Frontline asked him to discuss why he feels marriages are decaying in the United States, fraying society:
"My best guess at present is that it occurred because of the spread of individualism in Western society. Individualism is one of the great accomplishments of Western society. It makes possible a scientific invention, marked economies, personal freedom, political democracy.
No one wants to get rid of individualism, but every culture has a cost. The cost of individualism is that people withdraw from their earlier commitment — sometimes a religious commitment, sometimes simply a habitual commitment — to social cohesion.
One of the elements of social cohesion that individuals have withdrawn from is the idea that you should not have children unless you're married, and if you do have children without being married, you should get married immediately. That has gone. The shotgun marriage has evaporated.
This problem of individualism, of the extreme form of individualism we have today, is the leading cause of the problem. Not the only cause, but I think the leading cause."
One of Wilson's last articles was an opinion piece for the Washington Post, urging voters to drop efforts to tax the wealthy. He suggested targeted efforts toward poor Americans would better reduce income inequality, and suggested the private sector should be involved.
Wilson proposed investors could pay for programs that help poorer Americans find work or stay in school or out of prison. The program is tested by a government agency, which reimburses investors for success. His ideas drew thousands of online comments.
Wilson was a senior fellow at Boston College's Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy. He previously taught at Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine University. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. He was 80, and is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren, notes the Boston Globe.