John Leo
NEW YORK -- Why was New York City in free fall 10 years ago and believed to be ungovernable? "Because of ideas," Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in his farewell address. The city got itself tangled in "political philosophies and political creeds and ideologies." Very few politicians would point to stupid ideas as the cause of urban disintegration, but Giuliani was right to do so.

Consider where the city was a decade ago. Social breakdown had reached the point where tourists stayed away in droves and more than half of the adults living here, according to a New York Times poll, had plans to leave the city. An army of the "homeless," a euphemism for alcoholics, addicts and released mental patients, camped out on sidewalks and in parks. A second army, made up of do-good lawyers, fought to create the right to live, sleep and defecate on city streets. Nobody seemed to litigate the right to a livable city or to parks free of human waste.

Disorder seemed to be everywhere. Turnstile-jumping, getting into the subway without paying, became the city's favorite sport. Together with other subway scams, it was costing the transit authority an estimated $60 million a year. (One of the early joys of the Giuliani administration was heading down to the West Fourth Street subway station to watch cops round up a few hundred turnstile jumpers and bus them away for a three-hour adventure at police headquarters.)

A million people were on welfare. Around 25 cabbies a year were murdered. The menace reached the most stable neighborhoods. Two Korean grocers at the end of my block were savagely beaten by some 20 thugs. My neighborhood had its own "wilding" incident too. A gang of teen-aged girls with baseball bats and assorted pieces of lumber burst out of the subway and ran down the block clubbing people at random. In Brooklyn, someone said it was once possible to enjoy the city by staying out of certain neighborhoods, but now there was "almost no place to run, no place to hide."

So what were the bad ideas that brought about this disaster?

(1) Disorder and low-level "victimless crimes" are not worth bothering with. As Giuliani said of the city, "we were too busy" to do anything about street prostitution, aggressive panhandling, graffiti, and low-level drug-dealing on the street. But these behaviors signal a loss of social control, demoralizing residents and setting the stage for serious crime and neighborhood decline. This is what the "broken window" theory predicts, and a lot of evidence now shows it is true.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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