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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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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.”

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