Today’s Wall Street Journal has a nice piece about the problem of graffiti in Rome and the obstacles to cleaning it all up.
While the graffiti are certainly an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful city, there is also great economic damage done, which leads to impoverished understandings of private property and general urban decay.
If cleaning up the graffiti on a four-story palazzo can cost as much as €40,000, there are surely people there to profit from the clean-up. And in Rome, there must be whole bureaucracies created to study, discuss and discuss and discuss the problem some more. Perhaps there are too many people making money off this graffiti affair to put an end to it. So maybe we should just get used to the graffiti and consider it all a net-plus to the city economically?
Not at all. This should remind us of the French economist Frédéric Bastiat’s theory of “what is seen and what is not seen”, also known as his theory of the broken window. (Incidentially, Bastiat is buried in the Roman church of San Luigi dei Francesi and his simple tomb makes a great pilgrimage stop for those who appreciate market economics.)
When crimes against private property are not recognized for what they are and state officials choose to shrug them off, people will grow accustomed to such crimes and even seek economic justifications for them. This in turn leads to more crime and even less respect for private property. Not only is this bad economics, it is immoral and immensely demoralizing to those who care about their common life, i.e. politics in the widest and most important sense of the word. It also explains why Romans seem to care so little about their city, its public as well as its private spaces, and why it seems to take American volunteers to clean up the place. Che vergogna!