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James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012
A look at the life of the conservative scholar.
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Among American conservatives, there has long been a division between those who take their bearings from Edmund Burke and those who take them from Alexis de Tocqueville. Burkeans are concerned with the preservation of ranks and establishments against the modern tides of democracy and revolution, Tocquevillians with the means by which democracies can preserve themselves against inbred tendencies to self-destruction. For Burke, the great question was how to resist the tide of democratic revolution in order to maintain what is valuable in civilization; for Tocqueville, it was how to render democracy compatible with civilization as a means of saving them both.
James Q. Wilson, who died on March 2 at the age of 80, was a Tocquevillian through and through. The great questions he addressed during his distinguished career in academe were related in one way or another to the preservation of the institutions of religion, family, and community that he judged to be fundamental to a democratic way of life. For the average man or woman on the street, his views expressed their basic common sense. But this was not so in the academic world he inhabited. For most of his career, Wilson worked against the grain of the academic consensus that said that these institutions were oppressive to individuals, women, and minority groups and thus needed either to be reformed or suppressed. Wilson, never one to follow the crowd, was skeptical of the foundations upon which this consensus was based. His great achievement as a scholar and a social scientist was patiently and methodically to array the evidence to demonstrate that his colleagues were mostly wrong and the “man on the street” was mostly right.
Wilson’s general outlook was shaped by his contrasting experiences in Southern California, where he was born and attended high school and college, and Harvard University, where he spent the first half of his academic career and established his scholarly reputation. Having spent his formative years in Long Beach and Los Angeles during the Thirties and Forties, Wilson was instinctively sympathetic to the restless and dynamic elements of American life and appreciative of their effects upon the American character.
It was at Harvard, during the Sixties and Seventies, where he began to work through the new challenges to democratic institutions posed first by post-war affluence and later by the New Left. And it was at Harvard where he was a member of an extraordinary community of similarly inclined scholars that included Edward Banfield, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Harvey Mansfield, and Samuel Beer. When Wilson left Harvard in 1987, it was to return to California, first as a faculty member at UCLA and later as the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. In his last years he and his wife returned again to live in the Boston area to be nearer to their children and grandchildren. The spirit of these two places—Southern California and Boston—somehow combined in Wilson to produce a principled scholar in close touch with the rapidly changing currents of American life.
Wilson’s first three books written as a young academic in the early sixties—Negro Politics (1960), The Amateur Democrat (1962), and City Politics (1963, with Banfield)—addressed the then-brewing conflict in major cities between the professional “machines” and the cause-oriented reformers who sought to displace them. Wilson drew a contrast between the “professionals” (like Mayor Daley of Chicago) who were mainly interested in winning elections and were often corrupt but effective in keeping the streets clean and safe, and the “amateurs” who joined reform movements to overturn the professionals in order to achieve ideological goals like equal rights, free health care, the elimination of poverty, and an end to nuclear weapons. In his study of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, Wilson saw that the “amateurs” might eventually prevail in that struggle, but in the process would make urban politics more contentious and ideological and city governments less effective in carrying out their basic functions.
When he wrote these books, Wilson’s views were generally in line with the conventional liberalism of the Kennedy years. He was sympathetic, for example, to federal programs to support city services and to assist the urban poor. As the decade progressed, he lamented the overheated rhetoric of “crisis” and “transformation” that surrounded federal policy and also that the “urban problem” came to be defined in exclusively racial terms. He was also skeptical of the “new politics,” developed in tandem with the Great Society, that insisted that the way forward for minorities in the city was “to march on city hall” as opposed to completing school, learning a skill, and getting a job.
While intellectuals and federal policy makers were worried about poverty, inadequate housing, and civil rights, most residents of cities in the late Sixties were more worried about crime, pornography, the breakdown of public order, and disrespect for community standards. The rise of “amateurs” and the “new politics” were doing little to improve the quality of life in the cities. Quite the reverse, and much as Wilson had feared might happen, major cities were now plagued by rising crime and violent riots, strikes by public employees, and regular confrontations between policemen and protesters. These developments caused Wilson, along with many friends and colleagues, to rethink their commitments to liberal politics and the Democratic Party.
As an early contributor to The Public Interest, Wilson was a key figure in the rise of neoconservatism in the Sixties, especially since the movement was stimulated out of the matrix of issues about which Wilson was then writing. When the magazine was founded in 1965, there were few authors who knew as much as Wilson did about federal policy in the cities or the growing influence of reformers in urban politics. To a great extent, the movement reflected Wilson’s skeptical approach to politics and policy and his determination to draw upon social science to test the extravagant claims made by reformers on behalf of their programs. For the next four decades, Wilson was a mainstay of the neoconservative movement, contributing regular essays to publications like The Public Interest and Commentary, maintaining associations with institutions friendly to the movement like the American Enterprise Institute and The Manhattan Institute, and, incidentally, regularly coming up with new ways of thinking about old problems.
Wilson may be best known today for the “broken windows” theory of crime that he devised in tandem with George Kelling and which they set forth in an 1982 article in the Atlantic magazine. They begin from the premise that signs of social disorder, such as broken windows in a vacant building, encourage crime because they are taken as indications that community norms will not be enforced. “Consider a building with a few broken windows,” they wrote. “If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, the miscreants may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.” The theory suggests that communities can fight crime by intervening to stop minor violations of community rules before they escalate into more serious ones—for example, by having neighborhood police patrols crack down on petty crimes such as panhandling, turnstile jumping, street prostitution, and graffiti writing.
The “broken windows” hypothesis was a challenge to the theory that poverty “causes” crime and thus that any effort to reduce crime must begin with programs to eliminate poverty. To the contrary, as Wilson argued in the Atlantic and elsewhere, crime arises from the breakdown in communal norms and can be fought by strategies designed to restore and uphold community standards. The “broken windows” approach was later put into practice in several major cities, most notably in New York City in the Nineties by Mayor Rudy Giuliani whose “quality of life” campaign led quickly to a dramatic decline in crimes of all kinds and to a reduction in homicides to levels not seen since the early Sixties. Today, New York is among the safest large cities in the world.
Wilson wrote recently that among his fourteen books, he was most satisfied with The Moral Sense, his effort to establish a foundation for moral judgments (reviewed in these pages by Roger Kimball in September 1993). If respect for communal norms is the basis for civilization, then how do we answer the relativist charge that these norms merely codify power relations that allow the rich to suppress the poor or whites to suppress blacks? How, in the face of these claims, do we restore the confidence of citizens to make moral judgments and to enforce the norms? These are hard questions and it is to Wilson’s credit that he tried to answer them.
Everyone, he argued, is born “with a natural moral sense,” a concept originally developed by the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, principally by Adam Smith and Francis Hutcheson, and then picked up by prominent Americans such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The moral sense consists of four virtues—sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty—that individuals absorb through family relations and community life. As much as some may deny it, we all experience the world as a field of moral choices: whether or not to lie, steal, go to work, or run a traffic sign are choices that are constantly before us. Societies, Wilson reminds his critics, could not function if they did not somehow compel their members to make those decisions, nor would democracy be possible if citizens could not be trusted to make judgments about the direction of their government. Democracy, in fact, is one of the purest expressions of the moral sense because its purpose is to widen the circle of sympathy and fairness to include nearly everyone.
Wilson returned throughout his career to the fundamental theme of “democracy in America”: where it has succeeded or gone wrong, how it can be strengthened, and where it might be headed. He wrote a popular textbook on American government, and his last two books (edited) were titled, American Politics, Then and Now (2010) and Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation (2008). His writings followed a trajectory from the city, the subject of his first books, to the nation, the focus of his last works.
Wilson once remarked that he was more conservative than most academics, but more liberal than most Americans, so he could not have won an election in either sphere. Whether or not that is true is beside the point, for it was in the republic of ideas where he made his life, and it was there that he won just about every contest he entered.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 April 2012, on page 37
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