James Q. Wilson's insight improved America

Article Highlights

  • Few social scientists have done as much to improve American life as James Q. Wilson, who died last week at age 80.

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  • As a scholar and human being Wilson was one of a kind, with a probing mind and an ability to reach conclusions hard to refute.

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  • Wilson's 1982 "Broken Windows" article argued that tolerating slight infractions results in much more serious crime.

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Few social scientists, and even fewer political scientists, have done as much to improve American life as James Q. Wilson, who died last week at age 80.

His name is familiar to three decades of college students who studied the American government textbook he co-authored, though one wonders whether they would recall it without the distinctive middle initial.

And I think a case can be made that that Q was a clue to the character of the man. To outward appearances Jim Wilson was an ordinary middle class American with middle class values and middle class tastes as unremarkable as those of thousands of other Jim Wilsons across the land.

But as a scholar, writer and human being he was one of a kind, with a probing mind, a capacity to sift and weigh evidence and an ability to reach conclusions that even the harshest of critics found hard to refute.

And one whose careful prose did not always manage to conceal a puckish sense of humor. A man as distinctive as the Q.

In the many remembrances that followed the announcement of his death few if any have mentioned that he grew up in north Long Beach, Calif., in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet it is something he liked to bring up in conversation and in some of his writings.

The north Long Beach that he recalled was a modest place, pretty much lower middle class, at the edge then of a metropolitan area pulsating with growth and brimming with hope for the future. They weathered the Depression, helped win the war and enjoyed the boom of postwar America.

From north Long Beach Wilson went on to the University of Redlands and graduate study at the University of Chicago. His first books were on subjects far removed from his own experience: "Negro Politics," published in 1960, at a time when there were only four black members of Congress; "City Politics," co-authored with his mentor Edward Banfield, and "The Amateur Democrat," a study of affluent reform Democrats in Manhattan.

In each he tackled a subject that would explode into prominence within a few years, with the antipoverty programs and urban riots of the 1960s and with the leftward movement of many affluent voters so visible in the last two decades.

Wilson was a conventional liberal Democrat then, but one with increasing doubts that politics and government could achieve the extravagant goals that politicians and reformers were promising.

In the 1960s Wilson met Daniel Patrick Moynihan and their friendship thrived even as in the 1970s Moynihan became a Democratic senator and Wilson became a Republican. Two remarkable minds with a knack for gleaning insight from statistics and making an art of social science had no difficulty appreciating each other.

Wilson's most consequential work was his study of crime. Early on he applied market economics to the subject -- if crime pays, you will get more of it -- and his 1982 "Broken Windows" article, co-authored with George Kelling, argued that tolerating slight infractions results in much more serious crime.

That theory, put into practice in the 1990s by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, resulted in huge decreases in crime -- one of the great public policy successes in the last half-century.

Wilson left a tenured chair at Harvard in 1987 to return to Southern California, with chairs at UCLA and Pepperdine, and he began to address larger questions, with insights that I think he drew more from north Long Beach than from Harvard.

His 1993 book "The Moral Sense" argued that people have an inherent urge toward moral behavior.

"We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition," he summarized his argument in Commentary, "to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human.

"Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage."

Wilson also wrote a book on marriage, co-authored one on diving in coral reefs with his wife, Roberta, and with her moved back to Massachusetts three years ago to be near their children and grandchildren.

A happy American life -- and one in which skeptical scholarship was joined to a love of country that leaves us with much to be grateful for.

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About the Author


  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

    Follow Michael Barone on Twitter.

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