R.I.P. James Q. Wilson

When James Q. Wilson passed away earlier this week from leukemia, political science lost a legend.  Wilson was like his onetime colleague Samuel Huntington:  he wrote far and wide and without fear.  His most well-known argument was the "broken windows" theory of crime.  He posited (along with George Kelling) that the best way to reduce serious crime was for a neighborhood to be vigilant about more minor (but publicly visible) signs of disorder, like grafitti and broken windows. 

For me, however, it was his work on bureaucracy that stood out.  His two books on political bureaucracy -- Political Organizations and Bureaucracy -- are landmarks in the field.  Bureaucracy in particular is a fantastically rich work, akin to Tom Schelling's Strategy of Conflict, in that a generation of organizational politics scholars could take a half-page of Wilson's musings and spin them into entire books. 

For some lovely obituaries, see Arthur Brooks in the Wall Street Journal, Harvey Mansfield in the Weekly Standard, and Mark Kleiman at SameFacts.  Wilson was a conservative, and many of his arguments were consistent with conservative principles.  He was  first and foremost a social scientist, however, acutely conscious of his own biases and willing to reverse course when need be.  Kleiman's post encapsulates this point nicely: 

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.

Recently I was asked to sign on to an amicus brief in a case involving the constitutionality of imposing life imprisonment without parole on those who were legally juveniles at the time of their offending behavior. The argument of the brief was straightforward: legislatures had passed juvenile LWOP under the influence of the idea that the 1980s had seen the rise of a new generation of “juvenile super-predators,” whose propensity to violence put the nation at risk of a bloodbath once they became adults unless they were kept behind bars. In fact, the upsurge in deadly violence by adolescents turned out to be merely a side-effect of the crack markets; instead of soaring, violent crime fell sharply. But the laws passed while the theory was in vogue remain in force.

Jim had been one of the promoters of the “super-predator” theory, though he was not its originator. When I glanced down the list of signatories for the amicus I found, at the bottom, “James Q. Wilson.”

Brooks has a nice quote from Wilson about how to be a conservative in the overwhelmingly liberal profession of academia:  "Be twice as productive and four times as nice as your colleagues."  That was James Q. Wilson. 

The best way to honor his legacy is to buy and read Bureaucracy.  You won't be sorry. 


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