Broken Windows

According to the Broken Window social theory, written about by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 classic article (subscription required) in The Atlantic Monthly, civil disorder breeds greater civil disorder. The theory’s name comes from an example about broken windows in neighborhoods. Crime is higher in neighborhoods where broken windows remain unrepaired, goes the theory. Criminals interpret such disrepair as apathy, and assume that they can get away with crime. The Broken Window theory played out last week in New Orleans, as law enforcement personel ignored looters, whose looting and other criminal activity escalated.

The Broken Window social theory should not be confused with the Broken Window economic fallacy, which was debunked by the French political economist Frederic Bastiat in his 1850 essay That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen. According to this fallacy, destruction is good for the economy, because it creates repair jobs. Bastiat uses the example of a shopkeeper whose window has been broken, who must then hire a glazier to repair it. This is economic activity. But, as Bastiat points out, the shopkeeper has lost the value of the window. And the cost of repairing it is an opportunity cost: the shopkeeper cannot then use that money on some other economic activity. So the economic activity of repairing the window prevents some other economic activity from occuring, while the value of the window has been lost. Thus, solid economics once again confirms common sense: destruction is bad for the economy.

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1 thought on “Broken Windows

  1. Dear Leslie,

    Thank you for answering my question from your earlier post (“Drowning in Dependency” from Sept. 5, 2005) and for a lesson in economics and a good Bastiat link to boot!

    Bryan Atchison

    P.S. I deleted my earlier comment so that I could look up the date and title of the earlier post and put it into the same basic message. Sorry, I’m still learning how to use Blogger.

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