James Q. Wilson: Another View


Wilson’s scholarly achievement was great, but his moral legacy is greater.

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James Q. Wilson has died. The ensuing commentary has lauded him as one of the most influential social scientists of his time. Jim was one of my mentors, and I revere him, but the idea that he was influential in the usual sense is mistaken. In fact, the world mostly ignored what he wrote. He was widely honored, but for quite other reasons. Consider the arenas in which he spent his life:

Political science. Jim wrote magnificent books about American government, as good as any. And yet during his career, trends in political science were all away from the old-fashioned, eclectic research methods he favored. He observed politics out in the field, interviewed people, read documents, and cited the research of others. Those methods can lead to robust and important findings, and they did for Jim. Largely, my books are written the same way. But today, most published research in political science is based on rarified statistical modeling or some other mathematical analysis. An influential recent method is rational choice, borrowed from economics, where political actors are assumed to maneuver to maximize their own self-interest. Jim never did any of this. Those methods are more precise but far less robust than his and often lead to weak or trivial findings, but they have come to dominate academe.

Indeed, much of Jim’s work was based on no direct data gathering at all. Rather, he interpreted the research of others. He integrated vast bodies of secondary literature—for example, on regulation, crime, or bureaucracy—and told us what they mean.  In this, he was typical of the great Harvard government professors of his time, including my teachers Samuel H. Beer and Samuel P. Huntington. These were great minds who reasoned widely based mostly on past research in their fields. Such methods count for a lot less today. Francis Fukuyama is one prominent political scientist who still uses them. Most academics today are narrow specialists who speak only to other specialists. Few even try to write for a wide audience, as Jim did.

Jim was fortunate to get established at Harvard before the mathematicians and political correctness took over the universities, provoking battles that endure today. Jim largely ignored those struggles and went his own way. He took the methodologists on only to a limited extent. His works on Political Organizations and Bureaucracy are written in part against rational choice theory. Political behavior, he argued, was more complex than economists imagine. In one lecture he impishly suggested that even the great James Madison would be out of favor in today's political science. But he never became a protagonist in the methods wars, and he left no academic school behind. Indeed, to found a school would have violated his skeptical temperament. But despite all this, he became president of the American Political Science Association and received other academic awards. How can this be?

Public policy: Many appraisals credit Jim with wide policy influence, but this is overstated. With George Kelling, he wrote the "broken windows" article that some credit with inspiring recent advances in policing. The article does state the essential idea that reducing crime depends on reducing social disorder in general. Crime flourishes when social authority weakens, and the answer is to strengthen it. By punishing minor “quality of life” crimes like vagrancy, the police can deter larger crimes. But Jim never filled in the details about how to accomplish this. It was police reformers like Bill Bratton who figured out that stopping little fish for minor offenses was a good way to catch bigger fish wanted for more serious crimes. Data-based management could sharply improve the deployment of the police. “Ceasefire” campaigns could stop gang violence by flooding the streets with social workers as well as police.

Jim never advocated "broken windows" or any other policy. He was too skeptical for that. He questioned the capacities of government and his own influence upon it. I remember the difficulty I had persuading him to write the closing chapter of my edited volume, The New Paternalism, which discusses antipoverty programs based on the close supervision of clients. Jim doubted whether such methods could succeed. I once spoke to the board of the Bradley Foundation, on which he sat. I argued for work enforcement as a way to reform welfare, and Jim questioned whether government could do that. In some general sense, he might have agreed with me that rebuilding social authority was the key to reducing poverty. But he never stated a general theory of why it works or how to do it. He also doubted that public administration could be “reinvented,” but without such innovations as contracting and performance management, welfare reform would have achieved much less.

Given government's successes with welfare reform and crime in the last twenty years, Jim's caution appears excessive. He, like other neoconservatives, overreacted to the earlier failures of the Great Society. He helped found The Public Interest, whose original purpose was to question the hubris of the Sixties. He was also swayed by focusing on criminology, a field that promotes pessimism. Far less is known about the causes and cures of crime than about poverty, welfare, or bad schools. But despite all this, Jim won the APSA's Charles Merriam Award for policy influence. And he won it in 1977—five years before he wrote "broken windows." Again, what is going on here?

Politics: Jim was revered by conservatives because he expressed their cautions about big government. He also flouted the condescension of the liberal intellectual establishment. Conservatives marveled to hear a voice like his speaking from the top of the academic world. They were eternally grateful. It almost didn't matter what he said. But at the same time, Jim was too diffident to be comfortable with active politics. He never gave a political speech or advocated anything in a political way. Bill Bennett and Robert George were much more forward.

And Jim’s views of politics were unfashionable. At the local level, he defended old-fashioned machine politics against purer “reform” movements because it was more able to get things done. In national politics, he deprecated the rise of public interest lobbies, fearing that it would make compromise more difficult. Above all, he disapproved of recent trends toward polarization between the parties. Indeed, he reproved elites for dividing the public. He preferred the messier politics prior to 1980 where the parties overlapped and were less ideologically distinct. Yet Jim received the Medal of Freedom and the Bradley Prize, bestowed by authorities—President George W. Bush and the Bradley Foundation—who were far more partisan than he was.

The truth is that Jim was out of step with his times. The worlds he lived in largely refused to follow him. Why then did they honor him? Because, I believe, of his exemplary personal qualities. Some of his insights were brilliant, others questionable, but the manner of them always impressed. His books were lucid and solidly researched. He was widely knowledgeable about politics, government, and policy (at least domestic), and he was a superb writer. Those assets plus his skeptical temperament made him an exceptional essayist. He could write intelligently about any subject and make you want to read it. He was also a persuasive speaker. Everything he said was reasonable and insightful. He was a rational man seeking answers, and ultimately the culture recognizes that.

And he was a superb mentor. His many students adored him. He was not my teacher—I studied American politics only after Harvard—but we became allies later. He read the manuscript of my first two books, making wise comments. He helped me find publishers. He coached me in how to address sensitive public issues. I owe him as much as his students do.

As a person, Jim was unusually modest. His many honors did not change that. He was accepting of criticism, even from those—like me—who knew far less than he did. I wrote him long comments on his books, and he accepted them. He was completely faithful in his personal relationships, which was foreign to the liberated spirit of his times.

Jim's charm and humility were two of the reasons people heard him. He dissented from much that was orthodox in the university and the political class, but he made fewer enemies than more abrasive conservatives, including me. He came out of a traditional world, and he defended its values, but he had only the faintest personal agenda. Few academics ever had so free a mind. His main purposes were simply scholarly—to make sense of whatever he studied. Such purity of intention is rare, and ultimately it commanded deep respect.

The man was more persuasive than his message. Jim’s scholarly achievement was great, but his moral legacy is greater. He told the truth as he saw it, and he was good to others. That is most of sainthood. He will surely get to heaven before I do.

Lawrence M. Mead is a professor of politics and public policy at NYU.

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