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Academic Paragon

Thinking about James Q. Wilson.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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When James Q. Wilson published Bureaucracy in 1989, Daniel Patrick Moynihan toasted it as Wilson’s “summa” and Wilson himself as “our Weber.” Like many pronouncements of Moynihan’s, that tribute was grand, right for the moment​—​but not quite right. What James Q. Wilson had in common with the German sociologist Max Weber was scholarly industry, an interest in bureaucracy​—​and not much else. The differences were all to our benefit.

Photo of James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson

Courtesy of Boston College

Wilson certainly received wide recognition as a scholar. Within a decade of completing his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago, he had attained an endowed chair in the Harvard government department. He was elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1991, after receiving its James Madison Award for distinguished scholarship the year before. Further honors continued to be awarded him by the APSA and other academic organizations over the next two decades. A succession of presidents, from Nixon to Bush, recruited him to high-level advisory commissions. And he gained notice as a participant in policy debates through op-ed columns and magazine articles.

After his death on March 2, at age 80, Wilson’s status as a “public intellectual” was confirmed by the many tributes published in newspapers, magazines, and websites. But Wilson never slackened the pace of his scholarly work. His books were written in the same straightforward style as his topical offerings. They were free of arcane jargon, abstruse equations, academic cant. They were aimed at a general audience of thoughtful readers.

Throughout his career, Wilson stayed close to the ground of political life, as ordinary Americans experience it. His scholarship aimed to make the baffling or exasperating aspects of our public life more comprehensible. Any one of his books could be read with profit by a college sophomore, perhaps even a motivated high school sophomore (my children read Varieties of Police Behavior at a young age​—​because we happened to have it in the house​—​and were citing it years later in their debates about how the Army should be patrolling in Iraq). His textbook on American government was​—​deservedly​—​the most widely sold textbook in political science.

Wilson did not waste much time on debates about methodology. I still recall the advice he gave me as a graduate student, when he sent me out with a small grant to investigate a federal regulatory program: If you quote someone, make sure you spell the name correctly and don’t throw away any document they give you. Perhaps the specific advice is less relevant when researchers can fall back on Google, but the underlying point remains: You want to learn about a government program? Pay attention!

Wilson’s method was, in the first place​—​and often the second and third place​—​to ask and listen and observe. Most of his work is about why people in various situations behave as they do. He emphasized incentives, but also the climate of opinion and some aspects of personal character. And then he moved on to investigate a different but related topic.

His first book was Negro Politics (1960). The title dates it, but it is still entirely readable and in some ways dismayingly familiar. It offers some statistics and analysis of political structure​—​principally the advantages of the Chicago political machine in rewarding followers, compared with what black civic organizations could provide, leaving to the latter the more dubious rewards of militant rhetoric. The book rests mostly on what Wilson learned from spending time in black neighborhoods of Chicago conducting interviews as a graduate student (the book was built on his dissertation). A lot of academics would have followed up with another book about race and then spent a career pontificating on the subject from the comfort of an academic perch.

Wilson was too disciplined and too serious for that sort of career. He moved from writing about the political style of black leaders in poor neighborhoods to the problems of civic reformers in affluent areas. Yet his book on the latter, The Amateur Democrat (1962), highlights many of the same problems, when political leaders can’t provide direct rewards to their followers in the same way as party machines. City Politics (1963, co-authored with his Chicago adviser and by then Harvard colleague, Edward C. Banfield) shows how the pattern of politics in different cities varies with the governing structures that facilitate or frustrate centralized parties or strong executives. On the whole, these works reflect an underlying respect for traditional political parties, even “party machines,” grounded in skepticism that more participation would achieve more genuine democracy.

A decade later, Wilson offered a more general analysis of these problems in Political Organizations (1973), which emphasizes all the dysfunctions that follow from the differing incentive structures of those who want to lead political organizations and those they try to corral into heeding or contributing to them. The book helped launch the “rational choice” school of political science, seeking to explain political outcomes by the personal incentives of decision-makers. But Wilson himself later cautioned against the “rat choice” tendency to reduce everything to one variable. And his own subsequent work was an implicit rebuke to the tendency of modelers to focus most of their attention on congressional voting​—​which is easy to tabulate and work over for statistical correlations but too readily assumes that congressional intentions determine government outcomes.

Meanwhile, Wilson had moved from writing about urban politics to inquiring about one of the central issues in that arena​—​policing. By the late 1960s, calls to “stop police misconduct” had become a rallying cry for both black leaders and liberal reformers. Harvey Mansfield once described the ensuing study, Varieties of Police Behavior (1968), as “the most understated title in political science.” It is an analysis of how policing differs in American cities, owing to different challenges and expectations. Cities where police are more accommodating also rely on the police to make disputable judgments about which crimes are most serious. By then, Wilson sent grad students to do much of the fieldwork. But he seems to have done most of the interviews for The Investigators, a 1978 study of the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Both books emphasize the difficulty of monitoring good performance by relying on easily counted indicators, like arrests or convictions. To explain what urban police or their federal counterparts do on a day to day basis, Wilson offered analysis but also a lot of sheer reporting, much of it face to face.

By the time he wrote Bureaucracy, Wilson had spent decades gathering examples of how ordinary people in government offices cope with contrary pressures and job incentives. Bureaucracy is a wonderful book, partly because it refuses to treat its subject at Weberian levels of abstraction. What we call “bureaucracy” encompasses many different aims, settings, constraints. The book starts by disclaiming any “simple, elegant, comprehensive theory of bureaucratic behavior” because such theories have always proven “so abstract or general as to explain rather little.” It then emphasizes distinctive constraints facing federal administrative programs in the United States. The book ends with “A Few Modest Suggestions That May Make a Small Difference.” Its lesson for would-be reformers, from the left or the right: Don’t expect too much. It is good advice for anyone thinking to launch a new program, but Wilson did not despise efforts to “make a small difference.”

If George Orwell was right​—​that all great writers have one title that captures the theme of all their works​—​that title for Wilson was Thinking About Crime, which first appeared in 1975, then in a much expanded edition in 1985. The crucial word is “thinking.” The book became famous for its relentless criticism of criminologists, who urged efforts to alleviate the “root causes” of crime​—​in poverty and social neglect​—​rather than focusing on catching, confining, or countering actual criminals. But Wilson was also impatient with politicians and commentators demanding that we “get tough on crime” without much heed to what that would mean or what it would cost. 

In a book that is filled with statistics and reviews of empirical studies, Wilson tried to capture what was reasonably well known and what was not known. The concluding chapter, for example, expressed skepticism about whether capital punishment deters crime, while acknowledging that the death penalty might well be defended on moral grounds. In the preface to the second edition, he summed up his “central message .  .  . namely, that we can make more progress thinking analytically and experimentally about crime and its control than we can by exchanging slogans, rehearsing our ideology or exaggerating the extent to which human nature or government institutions can be changed according to plan.”

Wilson was impressed by the power of institutions. His last book was a collection, Understanding America (2008, coedited with former student Peter Schuck), which might also be one of his signature titles. It is not an exercise in chest-thumping or flag-waving, but it is forthright in its claim that America displays enduring differences  from most other Western democracies across a whole range of policies and political patterns. Its subtitle is “The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation.”

Wilson appreciated what America has achieved, particularly the opportunities it has offered to ordinary people. In The Moral Sense (1993)​—​which draws on a wide range of social science literature (and some evolutionary biology) to demonstrate the natural basis for fellow-feeling and self-restraint​—​he refers in passing to Los Angeles as “the city that I love.” It was the place where he grew up. He left Harvard to return there in 1987, when he still had two decades of active teaching ahead of him at UCLA and then Pepperdine. I think part of what he liked about L.A. was its vitality and sheer human variety. It did not seem to bother him at all that Los Angeles lacked monuments of premodern culture.

In contemporary terms, Wilson’s writings always reflected a kind of conservatism​—​he emphasized incentives, trade-offs, the limits of our understanding. But he was in no way gloomy or fatalistic. The last chapter in Thinking About Crime sums up his presumptions: “If we are to make the best and sanest use of our laws and liberties, we must first adopt a sober view of man and his institutions that would permit reasonable things to be accomplished, foolish things abandoned and utopian things forgotten. A sober view of man requires a modest definition of progress.”

For all that, Wilson was surely an optimist in his underlying assumption that patient inquiry and patient argument could change people’s views and, at least at the margin, improve the ways we govern ourselves. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. Probably no academic has done more to earn this recognition for “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States.” I don’t think it occurred to Wilson to scorn that award because it was given by a politician.

Jeremy Rabkin teaches public international law and the law of armed conflict at George Mason University Law School.

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