David Brooks Nails James Q. Wilson, RIP

by John R Guardiano on March 6, 2012

David Brooks has captured James Q. Wilson perfectly, and in a way that no one else has.

As they’re published (and as I find them), I’m gonna continue to excerpt from, and link to, the obituaries to political scientist extraordinaire James Q. Wilson. (See “How James Q. Wilson and the Neoconservatives Saved America’s Cities and Made the World Safe for Policy Conservatism.”)

However,┬ábecause it is so original, unique and compelling — and because it so perfectly captures the man and his significance — David Brooks’ piece on Wilson deserves special mention.

Wilson, Brooks wisely points out, put questions of character and morality back into the public policy dialogue and debate. And he did this not as some sort of Bible-thumping religious right boogeyman (which haunts the imagination of the Left), but rather as a meticulous social scientist who let facts, logic and reason dictate his conclusions.

“When Wilson wrote about character and virtue,” explains Brooks,

he didn’t mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Behave in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent.

That sounds so simple and so easy; but in fact, as Wilson himself readily acknowledged, maintaining civilization and civilized behavior is anything but simple and easy: Because once a community begins to fray and unravel, restoring it can be doubly difficult.

“Wilson lived in an individualistic age,” Brooks writes,

but he emphasized that character was formed in groups. As he wrote in The Moral Sense, his 1993 masterpiece, “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”

One small quibble with Brooks’ otherwise superb piece. He writes that Wilson “did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated, [instead], by practicing good manners, by being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day.”

It is true that Wilson was a social scientist and not a theologian. So of course his work was not aimed at promoting prayer and religion per se. But Brooks is wrong to suggest that Wilson was indifferent to the secular effects of transcendental power and belief.

In fact, quite the opposite: Wilson recognized that certain social customs and habits (such as prayer in the public schools) might actually help to inculcate good manners and civilized behavior.

Our moral nature, he wrote in The Moral Sense, “grows directly out of our social nature.” And, in Crime and Human Nature, Wilson cited research studies that showed a correlation between religious belief and inmate rehabilitation.

In short, Wilson typically agreed with the dreaded “religious right,” but for the secular reasons of a social scientist; and that made him an extremely formidable and effective intellectual and political ally. RIP.

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