Broken windows

“Broken windows” policing is a policy of sweating the small things. A graffiti-covered wall (or a literal broken window) is an advertisement to petty criminals: the law is not enforced here! Feel free to sell drugs, jump turnstiles, or mug people. We’re not going to do anything about it.

Proponents would say that tolerating small crimes invites big crimes. Turning a blind eye to drug sales in the park allows the drug market to expand. The next thing you know, violent traffickers have moved in and the park has become a war zone. You can't give an inch!

The problem with broken windows policing is that it easily descends into authoritarianism. Officials come down on low-level offenders like a ton of bricks. Sentences for minor infractions become draconian, as every misdeed yields a prior conviction. People lose faith in the justice system because it no longer seems fair.

Indeed, the system gets less and less fair over time. You know what’s easier than chasing window breakers? Detaining people who look like they might break a window. Eventually every poor minority who dares walk down the street gets hassled for being window-breaker adjacent.

The system is ultimately counterproductive. As people become disillusioned with its excesses, they stop reporting small crimes. Why sic law enforcement on some poor kid with a spray can? And they stop assisting with investigations - it’s unseemly to collaborate with tyrants.

I think the “social justice left” (for lack of a better term) has accidentally re-invented broken windows policing.

The logic is this: we know that prejudice and bigotry can have terrible consequences. Making any sort of progress against them has taken hundreds of years, and the gains are by no means secure. Doesn’t it make sense to be hypersensitive to regressions? To the conditions that might lead to regressions?

It’s difficult to determine whether someone is intentionally testing a boundary or is accidentally wandering near it. This is why we see big reactions to small offenses, or even non-offenses. Is an edgy comment just a joke, or an invitation to scoundrels? Was that utility worker making a meaningless hand gesture, or was he flashing a “white power” sign? His intention doesn’t really matter: if we don’t take a zero-tolerance stance, pretty soon actual white nationalists will start “accidentally” making the same signs in public.

This is where you lose most people. “We will not tolerate bigotry and prejudice” is a noble-sounding policy. But firing a random blue collar worker seems unjust. Sending a cancellation mob after a think tank staffer for tweeting about a narratively inconvenient study seems way out of proportion.

There’s an irony here, of course: the people most opposed to literal over-policing are enacting it themselves. There’s not yet an ideological equivalent to “stop and frisk,” but it’s not hard to imagine one developing. “You there! Do all lives matter? Think carefully before you answer.” Or, “Halt, citizen! Name the genders.”

My aim isn’t to highlight the hypocrisy of the far left. It’s to try to understand why people might think “cancel culture” (again for lack of a better term) is a good thing.

I think it’s because broken windows theory is kind of seductive. It has a bad reputation today, but you don’t have to look far back to find it being praised in mainstream outlets (e.g.). It feels like something that could work: addressing problems at their root! Focusing on quality-of-life issues! Not giving aid and comfort to the forces of evil!

But broken windows backfires in practice. The people it’s supposed to be benefiting come to see it as the greater threat. “I’ll tolerate some graffiti if it means my son isn’t accosted by the police every week,” a parent might think. “People who think I’m a crypto-fascist are more likely to bother me online than actual fascists are,” a mainstream liberal might think.

To close, I’ll refer you to Freddie deBoer’s 2017 essay Planet Of Cops. It’s worth a re-read:

Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7.