The easiest thing to do is to mock. There they go again, those repeat offenders, Blair and Blunkett, announcing yet another scheme to try to bring some sense of social order to parts of towns and cities where it seems often to have disappeared. But remember that Tony Blair first made his name as a shadow Home Secretary, with his famous mantra about "crime and the causes of crime". And early in his prime ministerial career he was influenced by the doctrine of "communitarianism". This was a shadowy concept much promoted by a sociologist called Amitai Etzioni. It was rather difficult to pin down, but its ambit certainly included neighbourliness and mutual aid.
Blair is serious about all this, even if his methods - standing around in grim estates for the benefit of photo-opportunities - may make the delicate-minded wince. David Blunkett, of course, makes the delicate-minded do more than wince (as he would be glad to hear). For anyone at all tender-hearted, the result of listening to him for any length of time usually produces a howl of pain.
But mockery is not enough. Neighbours from hell, roving gangs, older people and women of any age trapped indoors for fear of going out: all these things most certainly exist. In Birkenhead, Frank Field MP has said that at his constituency surgeries he gets more complaints in this category than about any other subject. As so often, the Blair government is toddling along in the wake of American initiatives. Martin O'Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, was wheeled on yesterday to explain how violence had been cut in his own city. Ray Mallon, the ex-policeman who is now the elected mayor of Middlesbrough, seems to be having some similar success.
The government is pushing its Anti-Social Behaviour Bill through parliament in the hope of getting it into law by the New Year. Under this week's plans, "trailblazer" districts will get special government support for tackling nuisance neighbours, abandoned cars or aggressive begging. Remember that Louise Casey, the head of No 10's anti-social behaviour unit, first hit the headlines with her hard line on London beggars. Even non-Tories must occasionally feel a twinge of sympathy for recent Conservative leaders. How do you find a set of sustainable policies to the right of Tony Blair? Unfortunately, only the British National Party has succeeded.
Till now, in pinpointing anti-social behaviour, the Government has found it hard to make its initiatives stick. Local authorities were slow to use the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders introduced in 1999. Will the new legislation, and the little squad of trailblazers, do any better? Blunkett says: "There is no point in this garbage from the sixties and seventies about being non-judgemental. You can't be non- judgemental when you are living next door to the family from hell."
Again, it is no use just mocking him or perhaps murmuring: "Come back as Home Secretary, Michael Howard, all is forgiven." The issue is serious. Those who worry about the effect on civil liberties, or doubt whether this is the right way to tackle the issue, have a duty to put forward practical suggestions. Those who are on the receiving end of anti-social behaviour seldom live in the same streets as the distinguished lawyers, academics or media commentators who regularly line up against Blunkett.
But even they, for example, will have to make their way past huddled groups of beggars as they come out of the Tube. Hardly any of these are in any sense "homeless". I once went out on the Salvation Army's late-night central London soup-and-sandwich run. We didn't set off till after midnight. I asked why. The answer was that this cut out all those potential recipients who had to leave their patch of pavement to catch the last Tube or bus back to their flat. These people didn't need hand-outs, however pathetic their pleas to passers-by.
It's true that there are deep questions behind the flurry of small-scale offences that Blair and Blunkett are concerned about. In the North of England, for example, you can talk about the final collapse of all those slum clearance programmes that took families from city centres and dumped them on a windswept hillside (just such a hillside estate, outside Halifax, recently elected a BNP councillor). The houses weren't always badly designed; we're not talking tower blocks here. But as blue-collar jobs evaporated, the estates became drug-riddled semi-ghettos. They were social dustbins for people widely perceived by everyone else as poor white trash.
Throughout Britain, you may muse also about the role of the family. In a study published in the authoritative British Social Attitudes report, the researchers found that family links were central to what they called "the ties that bind". By this they meant the networks "that connect individuals to one another and to society as a whole". The parent-child tie was especially crucial. But today's families see less of one another, even when they still live together. Many children have a television, even a personal computer, in their room, which they can retreat to. There are many competing, and even self-cancelling, values.
The biggest social divide is between families where no one has a paid job, and those where there are at least two incomes coming in. In the workless households, what authority, exactly, can the older members exercise over the younger ones? In Yeats's words, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
None of these deeper social questions are addressed by the Blair-Blunkett initiatives. Professor Tim Newburn, a criminologist at the London School of Economics, is quoted as saying that punishment of this kind is not the way to stop people behaving anti-socially. "We need to think very carefully about what impels them to behave in these ways, and to intervene accordingly. Crucially, it needs to have some fairly intensive educational element." And, at a general level, he's right. But you have to start somewhere.
All religions believe in the importance of regulating behaviour through ritual. If people go through the motions of belief, they may in fact begin to believe. By attacking the symptom, you can sometimes get down to the cause. If it could be made less easy to frighten your neighbours, to scrawl obscene or racist graffiti on house walls, to dump untaxed cars, to stick needles into your arm in the street, that at least would be a start. And many might settle for that.
The American influence in these initiatives goes right back to a thesis put forward, years ago, by the Harvard academic lawyer, James Q Wilson. He argued that if you leave a broken window unmended on an estate, it starts to legitimise other kinds of shoddiness, and even minor crime. The neighbourhood begins its decline. Terrible as gun murders may be, they remain rare in Britain by international standards. What causes most fear and upset is the sense of sinking in a rising tide of petty, heedless, aggressive behaviour.
As always there is a Chinese proverb that fits the bill: "Those who say it can't be done should not interfere with the person who is doing it." The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary deserve some credit for what they're trying to do. If it doesn't work, we lose nothing. if it works, we all gain.
Paul Barker is a senior research fellow, Institute of Community StudiesReuse content