Noted criminologist James Q. Wilson died today. The author of the "broken windows" theory of improving social order. Sometimes it is treated simply as a crime-control strategy, but really it is much broader.
The idea is that if a community lets a broken window stay broken, it sends a signal that the community is not organized enough or concerned enough to fix it. And if no one is watching little things, soon it loses the capacity to pay attention to big dangers, too. Thus, the best way to start fighting serious crime is to vigorously respond to quality-of-life crimes. These ideas have been tried in communities large and small, which has correlated with a significant drop in crime.
The larger sense of Wilson's theory, though, is in line with Tocqueville's insight that what makes American democracy work is the dense network of voluntary associations that come together to do whatever needs doing in our communities. The broken windows, literal and figurative, in our communities are not mainly fixed by government, nor by a few saintly individuals. They are addressed by small groups of ordinary people who get together to deal with something that affects their corner of the community.
The next time something seems out of order in your neighborhood, call the neighbors, find a few who want to actually do something, and fix that broken window. And raise a toast to James Q. Wilson.