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A Gentleman and a Scholar

James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By CHRISTOPHER DEMUTH
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That was the early phase of an intellectual career that would span 52 years (Jim’s last essay, on taxation and income distribution, was written in the teeth of worsening health and ran in the Washington Post a month before his death). As his fame increased, he acquired a reputation as the most restrained, punctilious, empirically grounded of public intellectuals. And it is true that Jim cherished the norms of academic life, sometimes to the point of starchiness. In the late 1960s, he was finishing a lengthy study of how the organization of police departments affected the conduct and effectiveness of patrolmen on the front lines. His mentor and friend Edward Banfield, who had once been a journalist, had a terrific idea for a title: The Bureaucrat on the Beat. Jim was appalled, and titled his book Varieties of Police Behavior. Yet he was not at all the timid academic who sticks close to the literature and reports new data with a minimum of interpretation. His writings in magazines and newspapers were distinguished for their lucid summaries of research findings from political science, economics, psychology, ethnography, genetics, and other academic fields. But the key to his intellectual influence (actually one of two keys—I’ll get to the other one later) lay elsewhere. It was his Tocqueville-like talent for creative observation and inspired interpretation and argument. As Wilson’s sometime coauthor Karlyn Bowman puts it, he had “an eye for the piquant detail.” He saw things that others did not see, whether he was reading a journal article, conducting a field interview, or following the news, sports, literature, the arts, or popular culture high and low (all of which he did avidly). And he made the most of what he saw.

Consider Jim’s most celebrated policy article, “Broken Windows,” written with George L. Kelling and published in 1982 in the Atlantic. The essay is conventionally treated as timely elaboration on an academic study which had found that, when an abandoned automobile had a single smashed window, it would soon be thoroughly vandalized. In fact, the article was based on a rejection of widely accepted findings, from careful empirical research, that putting police officers on foot patrols (rather than in patrol cars) had no effect on crime rates. That may be so, Wilson and Kelling wrote, in the short run in a neighborhood already wracked by violent crime. But it missed a larger and more important consideration: that the safety of a neighborhood is more than a matter of arrest rates, and depends ultimately on whether elementary norms of public conduct are being observed, so that residents feel secure in being out and about, which is good in itself and will in time lead to reduced violent crime as well. The broken windows study was introduced to illustrate the authors’ contention that people’s conduct is strongly influenced by their perception of the conduct of others in the immediate community. It was employed​—​along with other studies, discursive writings, history, illustrations from everyday life, appeals to logic and intuition, and persuasive rhetoric​—​to argue that the mission of policing ought to be expanded from crime-fighting to order-maintenance. The essay that launched a transformation in police practices (eventually cleaning up Times Square and other bellwether urban precincts) was not a popularization of research findings​—​the research findings pointed every which way. Rather it was an inspired, original proposition, constructed with fresh interpretations of selected research findings in tandem with other tools of understanding and exposition.

Here is another instance of Wilson’s tremendous native perspicacity. In “A Guide to Reagan Country: The Political Culture of Southern California” (Commentary, May 1967), he set out to explain to his liberal Eastern friends the disturbing recent political developments in California. Ronald Reagan had just been elected governor in a landslide, and Jim called the phenomenon “Reaganism” (he may have coined the term). The assertive conservatism that Reagan embodied was not, he explained, a product of rootlessness, social alienation, bigotry, Birchite paranoia, or lotus-land selfishness, as so many pundits and intellectuals supposed. To the contrary, it expressed a new, thoroughly democratic political ethos that had developed among internal migrants, mainly (like Reagan himself) from the American heartland. They had come to Southern California in pursuit of happiness, and they were the opposite of rootless malcontents: They were the home-owning, upwardly mobile, newly middle-class bourgeoisie. “They are,” Jim wrote, “acquiring security, education, living space, and a life style that is based in its day-to-day routine on gentility, courtesy, hospitality, virtue.”

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