If It’s Broke, Fix It

Bert Lance was the ill-fated director of the office of management and budget in Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated 1977 administration. Few remember his name. But most remember a phrase he made famous. The Phrase Finder quotes a newsletter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Nation’s Business,” of May 1977:

“Bert Lance believes he can save Uncle Sam billions if he can get the government to adopt a simple motto: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ He explains: ‘That’s the trouble with government: Fixing things that aren’t broken and not fixing things that are broken.’”

Only “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” achieved bumper-sticker status. But it’s just as important to fix things that are broken. Maybe more so. Especially broken windows.

In 2008, the Yale School of Management reported on the extraordinary success of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s appointee as Police Commissioner:

“William Bratton, commissioner of the New York Police Department from 1994 to 1996, presided over a dramatic decline in the city’s crime rate. Hired by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as part of a new crime fighting initiative, Bratton embraced the ‘broken windows’ theory that had made him so successful as chief of the city’s transit police. According to this theory, when a community ignores small offenses such as a broken window on a parked car, larger offenses such as burglary, robbery, and assault inevitably follow. Conversely, serious crime can be prevented if a community polices the little things, the ‘quality-of-life’ offenses such as vandalism, graffiti, panhandling … and noise.”

“Quality of life” is a cliché used in many contexts — from political to medical. But even before Giuliani toughed out crime in New York City, a liberal mayor, John Lindsay, appointed Sam Schwartz, then an engineer in the traffic department, to “Special Projects.”

Safire’s Political Dictionary reported that Schwartz, who later became traffic commissioner of NYC, said in 1984, “As more and more citizens begin to demand a reduction in quality-of-life infractions — such as running red lights — you’ll see a return to the time when police stringently enforced laws.”

Safire also credited Schwartz for the term “gridlock.” But Schwartz insists it was together with another traffic engineer named Roy Cottam, who was concerned that closing off streets in the Broadway area would cause the grid system to “lock-up” and all traffic would grind to a halt. But ever since then, Schwartz became known as Gridlock Sam.

Whatever the etymology, the truth is clear. Open trash doesn’t just look bad. It leads to rat infestation and disease. And broken windows let in the rain, snow … and worse.

We are familiar with, lehavdil, the Mishnah in Avos: “Ben Azzai used to say: Run to pursue a minor mitzvah, and flee from a transgression. For a mitzvah brings another mitzvah, and a transgression brings another transgression. For the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the reward of transgression is transgression.”

It might be a conceptual leap from laxity in “minor” mitzvos to crime. But Harav Yisrael Salanter warned that even the greatest tzaddik must constantly be on guard not to fall. As Hillel said in Avos, Al taamin b’atzmecha ad yom mos’cha — Don’t trust yourself until the day you die.”

How much more so those who are not tzaddikim!

When Bill de Blasio made what may be remembered as the best decision of his career — even before he was inaugurated — Hamodia hailed the move in an editorial, “A Great Cop and a Mentch — Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio made one of the most important decisions for his incoming administration by picking William Bratton as the New York Police Department’s commissioner. And it was a terrific choice. New York City doesn’t have any bridges, streets or courthouses named after Bratton. But one day it will.”

At a time when police are being gunned down and policy is decided in the streets by mob rule, we need the wisdom and experience of the finest of New York’s finest more than ever. And those who paint him as a rigid authoritarian need a new brush, with fine bristles.

As The Wall St. Journal reported, at the same time that Bratton is “‘doubling down’ on his defense of the New York Police Department’s quality-of-life policing … he also opened the door to softening consequences for first-time offenders.”

Mayor de Blasio should take a lesson from his predecessors. Don’t hire a surgeon and then tell him how to operate. Let the expert do his job.

As Sir Arthur Helps wrote in 1868, “Nothing succeeds like success.”