Learning from James Q. Wilson

When James Quinn Wilson passed away in March, he left a formidable legacy for policymakers in need of guidance. But at least as notable was his influence on a generation of scholars. He was not just an exceptional thinker but an exceptional teacher as well.

As one of his students — who became a colleague and friend — I learned three lessons from him above all. And in classic Wilson style, they were straightforward: First, be sure to get the facts before opining. Second, be practical. Recognize that the root causes of many problems in society are elusive, and that public policy has to make do regardless. But third, be prudent when proposing solutions — or “reforms” — for they can often make matters worse.

These exhortations may now sound like clichés to any self-respecting conservative, at least until we recall that their force, and in some cases even their genesis, lie in the teachings of James Q. Wilson. And our appreciation for those teachings only grows when we fully reckon how often they are ignored by today’s would-be reformers, across the political spectrum.


It is no secret that Wilson’s politics became increasingly conservative in his later years. Originally a registered Democrat, he died an iconic figure in Republican circles. But perhaps less noticed is that, throughout his illustrious career, he did not do business the way either the left or the right often does in important policy debates.

Economic policy offered a recent illustration. When the Democratic majority in Congress managed to pass a gargantuan stimulus package in February 2009, the Obama administration confidently predicted that it would quickly generate hundreds of thousands of jobs. With equal conviction, Republican lawmakers, all of whom had voted against the legislation in the House, predicted that the stimulus would fail. Even now it remains practically de rigueur for leading GOP politicians to denounce the stimulus and proclaim that it “didn’t work.”

This war of tendentious declaratives, unsupported by sound science, was not the kind of dispute into which James Q Wilson was eager to enter. He was no fan of the stimulus bill, but he also recognized that the legislation was composed of many moving parts, and so ultimately deemed it unserious to presuppose that none could conceivably have a desirable impact. Professionally steeped in evidence-based reasoning, he naturally declined to indulge in the dubious exercise of forecasting precisely the number of jobs likely to be saved or created, but he likewise resisted sweeping assertions about the utter futility of the entire countercyclical effort. Instead, in an essay I co-authored with him for the Hoover Institution in 2010, he came soberly to this sensible formulation:

“It is quite plausible that the stimulus was one of the actions of government that helped prevent the severe economic slump from worsening. To answer scientifically, however, whether a particular anti-recessionary policy succeeded, there would have to be a controlled test examining a series of identical recessions, and somehow applying exactly the same policy to some but not others. Then we would have a better idea of what works.Obviously, such a test is impossible.”

Would that the polemicists in Congress, on the campaign trail, and in the media might reason this way.

Or consider the ceaseless partisan strife over the role of tax reductions in spurring economic growth. Except grudgingly and in the throes of a crushing recession, the left robotically dismisses the possibility that higher marginal tax rates could stifle growth. The right, meanwhile, ritually presumes that lowering such rates always begets prosperity. To be sure, Wilson worried that raising taxes risks letting politicians off the hook when it comes to undertaking essential retrenchment in unsustainable government spending, and he strongly suspected that a wider tax base (with fewer loopholes) but lower rates would be economically productive. Yet he was not dogmatic in the least.

He knew that reputable economists continue to debate the relative countercyclical advantages of tax relief versus spending programs. Ever the empiricist, Wilson also agreed that the literature favoring tax-cutting by itself was far from sufficient, let alone conclusive. Much depends on where the rates are to begin with. Tax cuts are a no-brainer when top marginal rates reach absurd levels. (It is likely that stagflation in the 1970s, for instance, could have been alleviated in part by slashing the top tax rate, which remained above 70% at the time.)

The debate over taxation these days is, of course, doubly knotted by concerns about equity. In his State of the Union address last January, President Obama proposed on grounds of basic fair play the equivalent of a substantial alternative minimum tax for millionaires. Wilson was too sophisticated a thinker to be comfortable with so simple a formula for distributive justice. One reason, as he argued in an op-ed in the Washington Post shortly before his death, was that, as a practical matter, soaking the rich hardly guarantees better living standards for the poor. More fundamentally, fairness really is a more capacious concept. In his magisterial 1993 book The Moral Sense, Wilson parsed the concept of fairness as Aristotle did: Determining fair shares among people entails dividing things in proportion to relative merit, including a person’s effort, skill, and deeds. It may seem intuitively obvious that Warren Buffett should have to pay at least the same tax rate as his secretary, but whether that “rule” is truly fair depends on whether the deeds, skills, and efforts of Buffett and his secretary are commensurate. A moment’s reflection would keep a thinking person from jumping to that conclusion.

And yet Wilson would also see the intuitive appeal of a simpler notion of fairness. Citing evidence from developmental psychology, he had taken pains to emphasize in The Moral Sense that an appreciation of fairness, in its simplest forms, is evident in essentially every human being at an early stage. Even elementary-school children give it “a fairly definite meaning,” he wrote. More than a few contemporary conservatives would do well to pause over such considerations before reflexively brushing aside Obama’s brief as mere “class warfare.”

The day after Wilson died, the New York Times carried a front-page story about him. It was mostly devoted to his “broken windows” theory of law enforcement. That theory is now so famous that it needs little explication in these pages. Suffice it to say that the community policing programs that helped reduce crime rates in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and other major cities were inspired in no small part by an article Wilson co-wrote with George L. Kelling in the Atlantic Monthly in 1982. Wilson and Kelling explained how the breakdown of social order in neighborhoods encourages criminal behavior. What may begin with the mere presence of, say, busted windows, commonly abetted by tolerance of minor acts of vandalism or delinquency, may end with far more serious crimes. By signaling indifference or complacency, a permissive environment ultimately breeds greater violence.

This argument is commonly described as a “theory” of Wilson and Kelling’s, but it was not just a theory, in the sense of a mere supposition—plausible but not empirically adduced. It was derived in large part from work Wilson had begun to do with Richard Herrnstein, the prominent Harvard psychologist with whom he would eventually publish Crime and Human Nature (1985), and from systematic observation of realities on the ground. Wilson had logged long periods in the field, studying law-enforcement officers in action in a number of cities, thereby ascertaining what works and what doesn’t.

This almost anthropological form of research—accompanying police officers in their squad cars or on their beats—had yielded his book Varieties of Police Behavior (1968), which compared police operations in eight jurisdictions, and then resulted in subsequent studies (such as The Investigators, a 1978 book about the ground-level experiences of the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency). It allowed Wilson to build a body of evidence for his insights about the perverse social dynamics of “broken windows.” Long before theorizing and rendering judgments, he had learned the facts.


To stress that James Q. Wilson’s policy preferences were typically drawn from extensive, objective fact-finding is not to say that he had boundless faith in the ability of the social sciences to get to the bottom of mankind’s predicaments. On the contrary, Wilson was keenly aware that the underlying causes of our problems could often remain a mystery—and he recognized that policymakers would have to settle for something less than the (unknowable) whole truth. There were times, in other words, when public officials would need to address urgent challenges by exercising common sense, rather than awaiting the fruits of inconclusive sociological inquiries or holding out for the conjectural remedies emanating from those inquiries.

Amid the violent-crime wave of the 1960s and early ’70s, for example, Wilson began to sense that much of what passed for policy analysis — such as the “finding” that urban poverty was at the root of the crisis, and hence that relief lay in greater expenditures for Great Society programs — raised more questions than it answered. After all, crime rates had continued to soar despite an already great investment in such programs. Accordingly, in the volume Thinking About Grime (1975), Wilson wound up taking a contrarian stance. The book argued that, inasmuch as reliable empirical data could be brought to bear on the matter, there was little to refute an intuitively compelling proposition: namely, that if acts of crime pay, more of them will be committed. It stood to reason, therefore, that if the penalties for criminal activity follow quickly and certainly, fewer crimes will be committed.

In due course, local criminal-justice systems across the land began to follow that logic—and apparently with considerable success. The great tide of crime began to ebb. Exactly how much of the change could be imputed strictly to stepped-up enforcement apart from other factors (such as the changing age profile of the population), and whether a deterrent effect resulted primarily from faster, more predictable punishment or from its greater severity, remain questions much debated. Alas, now we will never be certain what Wilson would say about all of them going forward. But it is probably safe to submit that, if he were still with us, he would be leaning toward a nuanced view: crediting the new policies he had helped to develop, but only up to a point, and approving of justice that is swift and certain but not so draconian as to degenerate into mass, long-term incarcerations. Wilson, after all, was scrupulously mindful of the limits of what is in the power of a free society to control.

While he was always aware of the limits of our knowledge, however, Wilson did not shy away from prescribing policies in areas where he felt sure-footed. Criminal justice was one, but there were others. In one of the best tributes to Wilson in the days after his death, New York Times columnist David Brooks reminded readers that Wilson’s recommendations could be bold in the sphere of social policy. In a 1998 essay for The Public Interest, for instance, he advanced a range of suggestions for strengthening families. They included not only improved pre-school programs but privately operated, publicly supported group homes for troubled teenage mothers, as well as government-funded incentives for struggling single parents to take better care of their children. (The social contract for proper parenting would be analogous to the G.I. Bill of Rights: Young mothers who proved themselves better caregivers would be rewarded later with government-backed educational benefits or training.) Clearly, for Wilson, government had a part to play in ameliorating some of the country’s social maladies. To the extent that his instincts could be labeled, they were decidedly more neoconservative than libertarian.

Still, a hallmark of Wilson’s scholarship was a deep reluctance to offer ambitious to-do lists for government in most domains—a reluctance I experienced first-hand a decade ago. With two Brookings Institution colleagues, Henry J. Aaron and James M. Lindsay, I was editing a book of essays immodestly titled Agenda for the Nation. Over the years, Brookings had published earlier volumes by that title, and Wilson had contributed to some of them. We editors felt that his wisdom was especially needed for the new edition, since it would be published amid the continuing aftershocks of 9/11 and the many bureaucratic failures that had become apparent in the wake of the attacks.

Wilson duly agreed to author a chapter, but to our disappointment he steadfastly refused to offer any trace of a possible agenda (which was, after all, the plainly stated purpose of the book). Instead, he simply expressed confidence in the resilience of the country’s constitutional institutions in times of crisis. “I happen to be fond of what we have here,” he wrote, “for it is an arrangement that largely avoids sudden, ill-considered changes.” He continued: “This is not to say that no refinements are warranted, though I leave it to other essays in this book to suggest what those might be.”

At first, this struck me as a cop-out. How could James Q. Wilson, America’s pre-eminent authority on, among many things, the behavior of bureaucratic organizations, not provide in our book advice on ways to improve the nation’s counterterrorism policies and security apparatus? But looking back, I’m no longer so sure. For time has largely vindicated his judicious caution.

Wilson’s conclusion was that, “in a serious crisis, the political process in this country can and does respond effectively”; no grand governmental reorganization is called for, thank you very much. Whatever else the post-9/11 years demonstrated, they generally showed again that the republic’s creaky constitutional order not only remained intact but, at least on core concerns of national security, proved capable of adjusting — and, however imperfectly, acting forcefully. The adjustments that made the most difference, moreover, were, as Wilson would have expected, probably not those that mainly redrew organizational charts. Rather, they were the changes that took place in more subtle ways at less visible levels.

Wilson’s abiding respect for the political institutions that the framers had deliberately designed to check, balance, and decelerate the decisions of government permeated his writings on national politics. Thousands of college students were exposed to it over decades in the pages of his perennially best-selling textbook American Government: Institutions and Policies, co-authored with another disciple, the distinguished social scientist John J. Dilulio, Jr. As a result, a lot of young citizens stood a chance of coming away from their government courses posing interesting questions, and arriving at counterintuitive answers.

An especially intriguing Wilsonian question at the moment might go as follows: By the end of last year, several major economies in the European Union were sinking back into a slump. The United Kingdom is now officially in a double-dip recession. With unemployment approaching 25%, Spain seems headed for a depression. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy was on its way to recovery through 2011, and posted a 1.9% rate of growth in the first quarter of this year. Why the difference?

A substantial part of the answer is that the American political process may in fact have done a better job digging out from the Great Recession than did those of many other advanced democracies. And the comparatively favorable performance may well have had much to do with the actions that our Madisonian framework impeded, not just the actions that it permitted. In its own muddling fashion, the U.S. government has managed to avoid (at least so far) the trap that several European countries have fallen into: initiating stringent austerity measures in a still-fragile economy.

How did this happen? In part, some countries in Europe have had less wiggle room. The bond market had already begun forcing their hands, whereas (at least so far) lucky America has been able to continue financing its deficit spending at low rates of interest. But that is not the whole story. Unlike, say, the British parliamentary model—so admired for its capacity to act decisively—our separation of powers, with its manifold opportunities for obstruction, blocked premature budget-cutting and tax increases.

James Q. Wilson might not have commended both those options equally, but he certainly would have predicted the reticence of our system to adopt either one precipitously.


All of which brings us to perhaps the most notable element of Wilson’s approach to knowledge. One reason why he was often hesitant to reach for theoretical answers to perceived national problems was that he frequently wondered whether we could really know that they were genuine problems in the first place.

Think about the prevalent lament among commentators in Washington today—that the American political system is hopelessly “gridlocked.” Well, as Professor Wilson would have urged, think again. For all the debilitating partisan rancor of the past two decades, the government still managed to adopt national health-care legislation, a torrent of measures to jump-start the economy, a far-reaching overhaul of financial regulation, a massive expansion of Medicare, a huge new cabinet department, a series of deep tax cuts, and comprehensive welfare reform—while, for good measure, waging two wars. Is such a government gridlocked? Or is it more accurately described as quite active, even overextended?

More to the point, as the record of American anti-recessionary steps in the past few years suggests, a little gridlock can be a good thing. To again borrow Wilson’s words, a regime that “largely avoids sudden, ill-considered changes”—changes exemplified, in my view, by evidently untimely pro-cyclical policies like those promulgated lately in various European parliaments — seems to have its advantages.

From Wilson’s perspective, additional wariness was warranted because of the strong possibility that, even when a perceived problem was real, and its solutions reasonably persuasive in theory, actually implementing those solutions could be an entirely different matter. To as keen an observer as Wilson was of public management and intergovernmental relations in this country’s complex federation, there tended to be a daunting chasm between crafting programs, however well intended, and effectively putting them into practice.

There is no shortage of illustrations validating Wilson’s skepticism. A case in point that he pondered at length was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yes, he conceded, there was a respectable case for a major fiscal stimulus to help reverse the economic tailspin in 2009, but what kind of stimulus? One involving elaborate projects like complex infrastructure investments, he suspected, was unlikely to provide a prompt Keynesian payoff. Other possible merits of such ventures notwithstanding, federalism and the modern regulatory state would put too much administrative and legal red tape in the way.

How did he infer this? Drawing on wide-ranging research and a shelf full of penetrating Ph.D. dissertations he had supervised over the years, Wilson had produced Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (1989), a treatise he graciously dedicated to the Harvard graduate students he had mentored. Still widely regarded as more or less the last word on the subject, the book drove home a simple point, one so basic it is often overlooked: Government agencies charged with straightforward tasks—say, issuing monthly retirement checks—stand a good chance of carrying out their duties efficiently. Bureaus tasked with promoting far more complicated initiatives — such as building futuristic high-speed railroads, controversial new freeways, “smart” electrical grids, or an industrial policy purporting to create hundreds of thousands of “green jobs” — have bigger obstacles to clear.

No wonder that the Social Security Administration disbursed its stimulus funds smoothly, whereas the departments of transportation and energy often ran into difficulties and delays. In the end, President Obama himself noted the dilemma, famously expressing his frustration to Peter Baker of the New York Times: For many public works, the president exclaimed, “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” In short, even if a sizable stimulus in 2009 was a good idea in principle, substantial portions would prove maddeningly hard to administer. James Q. Wilson, who knew a thing or two about bureaucratic impediments, was not surprised.

Nowhere was Wilson’s skepticism more marked than in the realm of political reform — another area where his analytical efforts ran deep. The most distinctive feature of American politics in recent decades has been the intensified polarization of the political parties, as each has grown cohesive, disciplined, and doctrinaire. Wilson was too smart to wring his hands about every facet of this phenomenon. Polarized partisanship, after all, has some virtues. Would voters really be better off if the two parties instead gravitated so consistently to the center as to become programmatically indistinguishable? Was the Democratic Party truly better when its diverse coalition included Southern segregationists? Although Wilson naturally would have answered these questions in the negative, he could see that the development of a style of partisan politics so ideologically hidebound as to preclude pragmatic compromise for the public interest was deeply problematic.

In fact, Wilson was perhaps the first American political scientist to discern and begin to explain this trend. In 1960, Wilson published Negro Politics. Based on his doctoral dissertation, the book compared the styles of two black politicians: William Dawson, a seasoned member of Chicago’s congressional delegation, and the flamboyant Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York’s. Congressman Dawson’s loyalty was to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s local party machine, an organization notoriously motivated by expedient material incentives rather than by ideology. Congressman Powell was the opposite: a firebrand, excited by symbols and passions. The result? Dawson was adroit at wheeling, dealing, and getting things done. Powell mostly wasn’t.

The growing presence in the party system of uncompromising activists, animated by wedge issues and ideological sentiments, was the subtext in at least two of Wilson’s subsequent books. The Amateur Democrat (1962) and Political Organizations (1973). Both were far ahead of their times. Anyone contemplating the power of ideologues in both the Democratic and the Republican parties today ought to re-read those works. They shed light on the rise of zealotry, and on its most vexing implications: the willingness to go down in flames over professed principles, and disdain for politics as the art of the possible.

Although Wilson detected sooner than the rest of us the perils in the ascent of partisan activism, he was no less concerned that proposed reforms of party politics, now as in the past, could have unforeseen side effects, including some that might turn out to be worse than the disease. His circumspection reflected the influence of Edward C. Banfield, his closest teacher and colleague, who was another of the 20th century’s greatest social scientists.

In 1963, Banfield and Wilson had written City Politics, a book brimming with historical insights into how political reform movements aimed at suppressing “partisanship” had gone awry. Drastic measures to curtail the power of party organizations were adopted by American city governments during the Progressive era. One of them was the notion of erasing, quite literally, the party identifications of candidates in municipal elections. The theory behind this so-called non-partisan balloting was that it would empower the voters: Now, presumably, they would choose directly among persons running for office, rather than having their menus decided by partisan intermediaries.

What stirred the proponents of this idea was disgust with big-city machines and party bosses, and with the corruption and waste they begot. Of course, that specific complaint was not the same as the one critics level at the parties today — namely, that their elites are too polarized philosophically. In a larger sense, though, the reform ideals then and now have something in common. The ultimate intent of the non-partisan ballot, Banfield and Wilson observed, was to release “the people from the shackles which the machines and bosses had fastened upon them” in order to elevate public affairs above “considerations of party interest and party advantage” and “give the democratic impulse a chance to express itself” Indeed, an overarching objective of the Progressives was to put “the electorate in the position to assert its will despite professional politicians.” That preoccupation has at least some parallels with current talk of a “democratic deficit” — that is, the concern that public affairs again are being hijacked by political operators who pursue, albeit for other reasons, partisan aims presumably disconnected from the will of average voters.

The main point to note about such reform efforts, Wilson would remind us, was that their principal consequence was undesirable: Far from encouraging people to get out and vote, the non-partisan formula depressed turnout. Today, more measures aimed at domesticating partisan politics and blurring party differences might appeal to battle-weary voters — or, like the non-partisan ballot, such measures could confuse, bore, and discourage those voters. The latter outcome, in turn, would scarcely serve the goal of depolarization. The first to be weeded out by lower turnout are the relatively apolitical voters, those who are less partisan and less militant—in short, those who are less polarized.

It gets worse. Among Progressivism’s various political innovations, Wilson argued, none grew more consequential over time than the idea of the direct primary election as the preferred means of nominating candidates. Before the diffusion of primaries, the selection of candidates was largely controlled by cadres of state and local party leaders. Their usual cast of mind, at least until rather recently, lay less in any impassioned pursuit of social causes than in simply securing for the political parties material advantages such as pork and patronage. For these power brokers, therefore, anointing candidates who stood the best odds of getting elected was the first order of business. And that pragmatic imperative tended to favor office-seekers with a broad appeal.

Enter the primary system. Its purpose was to displace the role of party bosses in vetting candidates and to engage the citizenry. Alas, not infrequently, this experiment in giving “the democratic impulse a chance to express itself has had the perverse result of rendering American elections, in a sense, less democratic. Typically, only small bands of voters bother to participate in primaries — and these committed participants tend to be more fervid than ordinary citizens. (The effect is strongest in the “closed” primary, where only card-carrying members are eligible to vote in their party’s contest.) Thus candidates are impelled to pitch their campaigns to unrepresentative factions. Having gained nominations by aligning with the hard-core positions of primary voters, candidates may then have trouble moving back to the midfield, where general elections are often won or lost.

The party primary, in sum, risks leaving the general electorate with fewer moderate politicians and more zealots. At times, it has also turned into a device for driving any remaining moderate incumbents toward disagreeable extremes. In no small part, the direct primary has come to represent the reverse of what the Progressive ethos envisioned: less a dependable expression of the “democratic impulse” than an instrument of party purification, purging society’s public servants when they don’t toe the party line.

No one foresaw more clearly than James Q. Wilson how far this Progressive electoral institution would stray in practice from its original theoretical intent. He would point to it as a cautionary tale for other prospective exercises in political reform.


I will miss James Q. Wilson. So will the rest of his pupils. And so will the country. For he set a standard of civility and intellectual integrity that anyone interested in the practice, as well as the study, of politics ought to admire.

His old friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan was famed for reminding those who engage in political discourse, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Few public intellectuals have adhered to that maxim more assiduously than Wilson did.

Deference to the facts, even when they might lead government policy in unexpected or unconventional directions, was among his trademarks. These days, more attention to that disposition by all sides surely would render the arguments in some of the nation’s momentous partisan debates less sterile, and more credible.

Today’s great public dialogues also would benefit from a larger quotient of the quality Wilson displayed in abundance: humility. The inconvenient truth is that frequently our knowledge of how to get to the source of what afflicts the economy or the polity, and then to fix it reliably, is woefully fallible. Correctives are confidently bandied about, but too often — and often too late — they get mugged by reality. James Q. Wilson grasped this quandary profoundly, and he strove nobly to alert all of us to it.

This article originally appeared in National Affairs.