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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.

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