New York Skyline

A Tale of Two Cities

Originally published at The Epoch Times

We hear much about individual “rights” these days, but very little about personal responsibilities. That’s untenable. Our freedom to exercise the former cannot long exist without accepting our duty to fulfill the latter.

Yes, failing to enforce rights leads to despotism. But the opposite can be almost as bad. Allowing people to openly shirk their moral obligations generates moral dissipation, cultural decadence, and precipitous social decline.

In our time, the rights/responsibilities paradigm has become seriously unbalanced. A pronounced sense of “rights entitlement” has eclipsed the responsibilities side of the ledger, leading to serious consequences. For example, once thriving politically progressive municipalities—such as Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland—are buckling under serious crime waves and lifestyle degradation.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a ready curative—if municipal leaders would only find the courage apply the lesson. Let’s call it a “tale of two cities” that contrasts the experience of New York with that of San Francisco.

I am old enough to remember when NYC was a frightening place. One memory stands out vividly. Circa 1978, I made my first visit to Gotham. I was excited, but wary. New York’s reputation was of a very dangerous place.

On the first day, I visited the library on 5th Avenue. Afterwards, I walked through Bryant Park behind the famous edifice. I suddenly felt like prey! Rough looking young men were engaged in what appeared to be drug deals. As I walked through the park, a few seemed to be following me with more than mischief on their minds. I immediately flagged a cab and made my escape.

Some two decades later, I traveled to New York on a book tour. I had some free time and happily took full advantage. The city was now widely viewed as safe. I walked around Midtown and decided to check out Bryant Park. Instead of thugs and drug dealers, women lay on blankets sunning themselves and giggling children played tag. I marveled at the change.

What happened? It’s simple, really. Starting in the early 90s, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other civic leaders demanded legal accountability for even minor infractions such as graffiti tagging, public urination, and subway turnstile jumping.

Their innovative policy implemented what is known as “broken windows theory,” a controversial academic hypothesis that social disorder causes productive citizens to withdraw, leading to increased cultural dysfunction, which results in more crime, which produces a greater sense social disorder, and even more pronounced withdrawal. Down and down a city’s life goes in a continuing spiral of social decline.

Giuliani’s moral accountability campaign focused not only increased law enforcement for petty crimes, but also lured residents back into the streets by cleaning the city and beautifying and policing open spaces.

New York soon enjoyed a renaissance. Tourists arrived in droves. Parks that had been surrendered to criminals became oases for families. Serious crime dropped to levels considered impossible only a few years before.

For example, in 1990, there were a whopping 2,605 murders and 112,380 robberies in the city. In 2001, Giuliani’s last year in office, the number was down to 960 and 36,555 respectively. In 2017, there were only 550 murders in New York and robberies declined in 2019 to only 18,068. Any way you look at it, that’s an incredible achievement!

As if participating in a scientific experiment, San Francisco’s leaders took the exact opposite approach, and experienced a predictably reverse outcome. San Francisco was once world class. But in recent years, it has literally gone in the toilet as a consequence of idiotic policy decisions steeped in progressive ideology.

I witnessed the disaster first-hand having lived in or near the City by the Bay from 1992 until early 2017. For example, during the height of the AIDS crisis, “needle exchange” was instituted that permitted drug addicts to trade used hypodermics for new ones—the idea being to inhibit the spread of HIV by eradicating needle sharing.

By 2015, San Francisco’s hypodermic policy slouched into needle giveaway, no exchange required. The outcome? Needles—perhaps infected with HIV or hepatitis viruses—now litter the city’s streets and parks.

Ditto human feces that now befouls San Francisco’s sidewalks. It started when cops stopped enforcing laws against public urination. I remember vividly the stench of urine in BART subway stations and on Market Street, the city’s main downtown thoroughfare.

Once they were allowed to piss in the streets, it didn’t take long before the city’s ubiquitous homeless population also began defecating on sidewalks and in gutters between parked cars. It got so bad that a “poop map” was conjured warning people where human feces had been found.

How much of an open sewer had the city become? In 2018, there were 28,000 “poop sightings.” When I visited Cairo in 2019, I noticed with dismay that the Third World city was cleaner than San Francisco. What a scandal!

And let us not forget the city’s shop lifting epidemic that has destroyed the once thriving retail environment. After the voters of California passed a state-wide initiative making theft of less than $950 a misdemeanor, the SF district attorney stopped prosecuting most property crimes.

Predators got the message, and it was soon open season on retailers. Videos went viral of thieves filling sacks with goods and simply walking out of stores. The shop lifting epidemic became so egregious that Wallgreens closed 17 of its San Francisco stores because theft losses destroyed their profitability.

On the positive side, violent crime has not shown a similar spike. But if broken windows theory is even partially valid, it might just be a matter of time. Regardless, the quality of life in the San Francisco has gotten so poor that 40 percent of residents in a recent poll indicated they are planning on leaving the city.

Meanwhile, New York has abandoned Giuliani law enforcement policies—and is reaping predictably pre-Giuliani outcomes: There has been a recent 68 percent spike in gun violence; Beautiful Washington Square Park is overrun by drug dealers; and, as in the bad old days, residents are feeling unsafe on the streets.

Charles Dickens’ great “Tale of Two Cities” begins with these immortal lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

The same can be said of our contemporary tale of two cities. New York—although in danger of backsliding—proved that enforcing personal responsibility elevates life for everyone. San Francisco demonstrates that enabled dissipation leads to societal implosion.

So, in which direction, America? The best of times or the worst? Rights with responsibilities or embraced decline. In a free society, that choice is up to us.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.