Few academics ever make a genuinely profound or lasting contribution to American public life. Political scientist James Q. Wilson was one of the few. And now, after an amazingly full and productive career, the 80-year-old professor has left us. His phenomenal body of work, though, endures and will long be remembered.
Wilson is most famously known for developing the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement, which literally transformed and saved America’s dying cities. The transformation was especially acute in New York City, which went from being a cesspool of violent crime to a wondrous haven for families, businesses and entrepreneurs.
I grew up not far from New York City; and my father spent his youth regularly journeying into Manhattan from West New York, New Jersey. Yet, as adults, my parents avoided Manhattan like the plague — largely because of the crime and their realization that the city was dangerous and inhospitable to families.
It took a man named Rudolph Giuliani to change all that.
Of course, Giuliani didn’t act alone. Other courageous urban leaders, such as the city’s transit police chief, William J. Bratton, and police commissioner Howard Safir also saw wisdom in Wilson’s “broken windows” theory.
Wilson’s insight was this: Minor acts of vandalism, such as broken windows, are gateway drugs, if you will, into bigger acts of crime and corruption which soon consume, dominate and ruin a city.
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars
Wilson’s insight simply and brilliantly explained why New York and other once great cities had fallen into disrepair and ruin.
Today, of course, everyone takes the broken windows theory for granted; but it wasn’t always that way.
Indeed, before Giuliani and other conservative leaders replaced them, our reigning liberal elites forced upon us another idea, now thoroughly discredited — the idea that criminals have to coddled and appeased, not deterred and punished.
That all changed, as I say, back in the 1990s. But the intellectual groundwork for this change had already been laid by a fearless political scientist named James Q. Wilson — a man unrestrained by politically correct orthodoxy and the cannons of liberalism.
Policy Conservatism. Wilson, in fact, was a conservative. This matters because conservative academics are outnumbered by a factor of eight or nine to one. And they are barely tolerated, let alone celebrated, within the academy. And so, a college or university student looking for a creditable source of modern conservative thought has relatively few resources available to him.
James Q. Wilson was one such resource — a towering and undisputed intellectual giant, whose work cannot be denied by even the most hardcore leftist.
I know because I first read Wilson as college student, in the pages of Commentary magazine, then edited (in the 1980s and ’90s) by the venerable Norman Podhoretz. And he (Wilson) was one of the few real conservative thinkers that I could appeal to and still be taken seriously by my professors.
It helped, of course, that the man was an empiricist, who based his work on real-world evidence, not fanciful and farfetched theories. This made denigrating him particularly difficult because, as Ronald Reagan once put it, “facts are stubborn things.”
Wilson’s ideology also matters because he was integral to a group of formerly liberal social scientists (dubbed “neoconservatives”) who made conservatism intellectually respectable again. The ranks of the neocons included (and include): Irving Kristol, Thomas Sowell, Edward Banefield, Norman Podhoretz, and Nathan Glazer.
Most of these men have either passed away (Kristol) or faded into obscurity (Podhoretz). Still, all conservatives owe them a tremendous intellectual debt for their pioneering intellectual spadework. The neoconservatives developed, as David Frum observes, “a policy conservatism that was empirical, relevant and useful — and convincing even to those not predisposed to be convinced.”
Here are brief excerpts from some of the obituaries written about James Q. Wilson. May he rest in peace — and may his work long endure.
[Wilson] was this nation’s foremost political scientist, literally the author of the definitive textbook on the workings of American government, a writer of uncommon grace and clarity, and a man who believed more than anyone I’ve ever known in the power of the human capacity to reason to change things for the better…
…In two brilliant books, Thinking About Crime and Crime and Human Nature, Wilson countered the despairing fatalism of law enforcement in the 1960s and 1970s. He argued that it was not first necessary to solve all of society’s other ills—racism, unemployment—before reducing crime. He demonstrated that practicable changes in the behaviors of police and courts could powerfully alter the choices made by potential wrongdoers.
If (as he hypothesized) a relatively small number of criminals committed relatively large amounts of crime, then holding those few criminals in prison longer would substantially reduce the overall crime rate. And so it has proven over the past generation of the swiftest record reduction of criminality in American history…
…He was a conservative because he believed that attempts to reorganize or transform the country were something the government does at its own peril, and everyone else’s. Things as they are deserve a presumption of validity, and the risks of unintended consequences are likely to be high.
He had confidence in humanity as moral creatures who acted accordingly most of the time –a theme that occupied him in his later years and informed his outstanding book, The Moral Sense…
…The things that made Jim special — beyond is massive intellect, wide reading, and graceful, accurate prose — were his generosity of spirit and his deep moral and intellectual seriousness.
At a time when he was very much committed to the Red team, he helped spread my ideas despite what he knew were my strong Blue loyalties. (Unsolicited, he gave When Brute Force Fails, which is largely a rebuttal to Thinking About Crime, its best blurb.)
Jim wanted to get things right, even when that meant acknowledging that he had earlier been wrong: a tendency not common among academics, or among participants in policy debates…
…At a time when number-crunching and rational choice theorizing held sway in political science, even at Ivy League universities that once seemed to resist such trends, Jim practiced a social science dealing with real world complexities and matters of deep concern to ordinary citizens…
…A big part of the reason for Wilson’s success in changing how we think was the exceptional clarity and elegance of his writing. He wrote great books, but he was especially a writer of great essays — truly a master of the form. Many of the best ones, especially on matters of policy, appeared in the pages of The Public Interest through the years…
…Arguably, no social scientist had more influence over American public policy, on topics ranging from deregulation to welfare reform. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush and advised five decades of American presidents.
Pat Moynihan once reportedly told Richard Nixon (who was known for his disdain for intellectuals), “Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.”
His influence on policy and politics was so vast that it inspired columnist George Will to quip, “To be a political commentator in James Q. Wilson’s era is to know how Mel Tormé must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra’s era…”
…Elegant in bearing, voracious for learning, eloquent in advocacy and amiable in disputation, Wilson was a prophet honored in his own country by, among various ways, the presidency of the American Political Science Association and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Every contemporary writer about American society and politics knows how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra’s era. Everyone else has competed for the silver medal. Wilson won the gold.
…Broken windows was only a small piece of what Wilson contributed, and he did not consider it the center of his work. The best way to understand the core Wilson is by borrowing the title of one of his essays: “The Rediscovery of Character.”
When Wilson began looking at social policy, at the University of Redlands, the University of Chicago and Harvard, most people did not pay much attention to character. The Marxists looked at material forces.
Darwinians at the time treated people as isolated products of competition. Policymakers of right and left thought about how to rearrange economic incentives. “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind,” he once recalled…