The Magazine

A Continent of Broken Windows

How do you say "asphalt jungle" in French?

Nov 21, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 10 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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Especially urban Europeans now routinely live in fear of being attacked or robbed, just as Americans did in past decades. This shows up both in opinion surveys and in the many costly measures Europeans now take to secure their homes, cars, and personal safety. Burglar alarms adorn quaint houses on cobblestoned streets. High crime also means that most European populations now contain a class of people who routinely engage in theft and low-grade violence. Europeans often insist that these criminals are either East Europeans who have arrived since 1990 or come from communities of immigrants mainly from North (but also sub-Saharan) Africa. But while immigrants and their children may be in the mix, the "new" crime started so long ago and is so widespread that it's clear Europe has also generated a homegrown class of people who see other members of their own societies as marks.

France's riots probably cannot be understood without reference to a welfare state so expensive that it stifles job-creation and closes the doors of social advancement to young people, especially minorities. The official French unemployment rate has fluctuated between 8 percent and 12 percent for almost 25 years straight (even more joblessness is concealed by early-retirement schemes). Ironically, Europeans used to lecture Americans that expensive welfare states at least ensured social peace by preventing the rise of an alienated underclass of the kind seen in American inner cities. Higher taxes for lower crime was a tradeoff many Europeans were prepared to make. Now they find themselves saddled with both high welfare costs and high crime. But placing blame on the welfare state only gets us so far, because crime is also high in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where unemployment is lower thanks to serious reforms of their welfare states.

THE ONLY SILVER LINING is that Europe's high crime rate may yet play something like the role it did in the political and intellectual turn that America took in the 1970s. Crime helped force America's first neoconservatives and neoliberals to confront questions of social order, civic virtue, and moral standards, questions that usually don't come up in debates over taxes and spending. Amidst the rioting, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin remarked, "What is in question today is the effectiveness of our model of integration," meaning France's approach to "social cohesion." De Villepin believes social cohesion comes from government and its subsidies. Crime does of course raise some financial issues. But, if anything, property crimes reflect the something-for-nothing mentality that welfare states already inculcate and legitimize. And crime as a political issue is freighted with moral significance, involving, as it does, a rejection of the mores needed for any ordered society. In this country, the rising crime rates of the 1960s and 70s eventually brought a renewed appreciation, among liberals and conservatives, for the indispensability of certain social mores, like minimal respect for character, national traditions, and virtuous individuals. Crime helped many Americans remember how important it is that mores like these be instilled in society's members, especially its newest and youngest ones.

President Jacques Chirac and his cabinet have been busy condemning violence and demanding respect for the authority of the state. But everyone, including the rioters, knows these words are being uttered against a backdrop of decades of excuse-making, the bigotry of low expectations, and the brushing aside of those who wanted to enforce minimal standards of social comportment, especially on immigrants and their children. Across Europe, the public arena has been stripped of civic standards, with the watery exception of "tolerance." Still awaiting its Rudy Giuliani, Europe is a continent of broken windows, in which government leaders and intellectuals don't defend or repair civic values under assault. The experience of New York City suggests it's never too late to start. Maybe Europeans, too, will be mugged by reality.

Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.