A broken window theory of the deficit


New York has changed astonishingly in recent years. New Yorkers used to go round in despair about the crime, the grafitti, the vandalism, the run-down building, the gum on the filthy streets. People on those streets looked stressed, workers in shops and service industries were surly. All that has changed. The place is far cleaner. Even the subway trains, once totally covered in graffiti, now have next to none. The streets don't have gum and litter on them like London's. The car drivers don't seem so determined to run you down any more. Sure, New Yorkers are still New Yorkers, but they now seem more polite, they shout less, and use far fewer profanities than the folk you see on Britain's city streetst. They're even quite cheery, and the fear of crime is far, far less.

Much of change is attributed to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, and his 'broken window' approach. He believed that it was no good just despairing about crime and vandalism. You had to start, where you could, right away. Fix the broken windows and clean up the grafitti, so the place doesn't look so run-down, and people might start to care for it a bit better. Introduce neighbourhood policing so that citizens know who's supposed to be protecting them, instead of regarding the police as distant, donut-chomping layabouts who flash past in noisy squad cars.

It's a policy I would recommend for Britain's public finances too. Don't get overwhelmed by the (seemingly overwhelming) size of the deficit and the debt. Fix the broken windows of inefficient, top-down- control public services. Clean up the sticky mess of quangocracy and regulation that gets under the feet of enterprise. Introduce neighbourhood policing of public spending and politicians by posting all government expenditure and all proposed legislation online for the public to scrutinise. Return control of public service to local communities – and better, to the people themselves. Do that, and not only will we get Britain out of its debt malaise more effectively. We might even end up with a better society, too.