Thinking about James Q. Wilson.
Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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.