The murder of two New York City police officers continues to reverberate in that city and in many parts of the nation. Officers have publicly turned their backs on a mayor who sides with race-hustler Al Sharpton, even hiring Mr. Sharpton’s former aide (herself living with a boyfriend who is a convicted murderer) against them. More recently police have engaged in a “work slowdown” by refusing to issue the thousands of citations for minor infractions (from double parking to public intoxication) expected of them. Some activists and citizens, especially delivery truck drivers, have welcomed the relief from constant surveillance and punishment. Others have expressed fear at decreased police presence. Higher ups in the police department have begun issuing threats and punishments.
Some observers have blamed tensions in New York in large part on “broken windows policing” which entails consistent punishment of low-level offenses to combat a general disrespect for law and public order. I have argued before that the problem with such a policy is that it attempts to use law to do the job of families, churches, and neighborhoods. Broken windows policing may be necessary in large, government-dominated cities like New York where fundamental institutions have been severely weakened by a culture of entitlement, dependence, and individual irresponsibility, but it is a poor substitute for a functioning society.
Broken windows policing is a sign of the overall decline in virtue and decency that comes with government entitlements and the drive to secularize society. But what does it tell us more specifically about places like New York City? After several decades of chaos, this city of eight and a half million people achieved a certain level of peace and stability by instituting a massive, pervasive, and consistent police presence. That was until election of the radical Bill de Blasio upset the balance of forces among police, various kinds of social workers, the rich liberals who run the city, and those who survive on government programs.
It is important to note that New York’s combination of a public ideology that despises free markets, a highly intrusive regulatory regime, and the privileged status of limousine liberals who “earn” vast amounts of money by manipulating the regulatory system to their own advantage is intrinsically unstable. Obviously, Mayor de Blasio was very foolish to take his ideology so far as to undermine relations with the police to such an extent. Cop bashing may be popular among some of his constituencies, but a population as far gone from self-control as New York’s must have regulation from the outside, and a massive police presence to enforce it. As Edmund Burke observed in criticizing conditions in revolutionary France—from which Mayor de Blasio and company unwittingly take so much of their political ideology—“men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” A population educated from birth to expect the constant presence of government officials and social workers to protect them from all manner of bad things, including the consequences of their own actions, cannot survive without its regulators. They will have forgotten how to restrain themselves when that presence is no longer there and relatively soon there will be chaos.
None of this is to say that other large cities are not moving in the same direction as New York. Chicago is a new murder capital. San Francisco survives its cultural and regulatory insanity only because of Silicon Valley’s vast wealth. Even in smaller cities, where governments regulate much less, people are far more religious, and cities are much weaker in relation to their suburbs, crime rates are hideously high. Nor is this to say that the problem is purely one of bad character. Many fine people live in big cities. But they are living in places where there is a definite trade-off between freedom and security linked to the loss of natural social institutions and their replacement by the coercive power of the state.
It is not simply a matter of crime. For example, no one could pay me enough to drive a delivery truck in New York; there simply are not enough loading zones or parking of any kind for that job to “work” in a legal sense. This humble example of parking raises the issue of whether the rule of law works any longer in our largest city. When piles of traffic tickets are considered a regular cost of doing business there is a structural problem. When the police must take on so many thankless tasks, hectoring the public in so many ways for small infractions, charging large fines to keep the city’s coffers from becoming empty, there is a structural problem. That structural problem? New York City does not “fit” human nature. Its rules, institutions, and very infrastructure are so unnatural that only the constant threat and force of police action can maintain some semblance of order and basic function.
It is only its clear, intrusive authoritarian element that keeps New York’s chaos in check. Anyone who has dealt with members of any of the many “public service” unions in New York is aware of the confrontational and aggressively unhelpful attitude that pervades there. But there are reasons for this attitude. Police know they are hated. Transit workers know that their wages, while outrageously high by most standards, cannot buy them a decent standard of living in their city, let alone reasonable social status or common courtesy in a town enamored of various super rich stars and power brokers.
The Giuliani/Bloomberg balance was not sustainable over the long-term because it rested on a level of personal regulation and enforcement that breeds contempt for law and high levels of mutual resentment. Too many “crimes” seem unavoidable; too many “punishments” look like price-gouging taxes. Mayor de Blasio probably will bribe, threaten, and cajole a truce with his police. But it will be a temporary truce, sustainable only through further corruption and taxation that even the federally subsidized “markets” based there can no longer sustain over the long haul. The end is not nigh, but an unsteady descent into ever-more regulation and force, countered by occasional violence seems inevitable until and unless the federal government pulls the plug.
The natural response to any such critique of urban social democracy is “Europe makes it work just fine.” And that is or at least was true, in its way and as far as it goes. Outside the ethnic ghettos in which crime and terrorism are bred, most European cities seem distressingly well-ordered, if hyper-regulated. Such was the direction in which former Mayor Bloomberg’s nanny-city-state was headed before Mayor de Blasio took over in the name of liberation from order. But Americans, thank goodness, are not so obedient and respectful of their upper-class betters as are Europeans. And the influx of immigrant populations in European cities has bred the same kinds of tensions we see in American cities, with tragic, violent consequences.
Despite our increasingly corrupt instincts, Americans remain too unruly to fit into a European model of hyper-regulated social democracy. May it remain so, even at the cost of dysfunctional cities like New York, until and unless we regain more of our virtues and the institutions that sustain them.
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