James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson died a few days ago. He was one of most intelligent, far-sighted and humane political scientists America has ever produced. He was a conservative, in the valid and meaningful sense of the word. He is most famous for his broken-windows theory of crime, the idea that neglecting small but visible crimes creates a perception that nobody is watching, leading to worse crimes. Much of New York city’s renaissance rests on his ideas. He also was the author of the best book ever written on bureaucracy, viewing the human agents within bureaucracies as fundamentally no different from anyone else, and explaining how the nature of incentives and the particular strictures we put on bureaucracies to constrain them lead to the bureaucratic failures we complain about.

I’ll let Steven Teles have the last word, because he says it so well.

I believe Jim’s greatest legacy is his ceaseless effort to present the variety of human experience that accompanies the difficult, exasperating, but necessary effort to govern ourselves. I am a liberal, and thus believe that more can be done in that effort that Jim though possible or prudent. But every time I begin to find my missionary zeal building up around some idea or the other, the James Q. Wilson instinct in me taps me on the shoulder and asks some uncomfortable question.

Those of us who consider ourselves Wilsonians will pass along that questioning, skeptical but not nihilistic spirit to our students. And in that sense, while Jim has passed from this world, his spirit is immortal. God bless his soul.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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5 Responses to James Q. Wilson

  1. Dr X says:

    Not all criminologists believe the broken window approach had an appreciable effect on crime. New York did a number of things. Aggressively targeting moving hot spots and stop and frisk are given much more credit by other criminologists.

    If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend this recent article in the New Yorker. I don’t know who is right but, for me, the article raised serious doubt about the broken window theory. Not that aggressive stop and frisk is likely to please civil libertarians.

  2. Lance says:

    Our little local Gestapo, the Carmel Indiana Police Department, is unabashedly open about being idiotically aggressive about traffic stops and search and seizures.

    Sadly I get the idea that the local populace, overwhelmingly white affluent and Republican, is all for this aggressive policy. The department has been sued for discriminating against minorities, but sadly the only difference I see since that litigation is more asshole black and Latino officers joining in on the fun.

    Carmel covers about five miles on square and has 126 sworn police officers with almost no serious crime. That’s a lot of Kojak wannabes and not much “legal” to do. People get stopped for license plate lights not illuminated.

    After being assaulted by six police officers for failing to produce ID (until I was told for what violation of law the police had reasonable suspicion to question me while sitting in my own car, in front of my own house in the middle of the day) I will be selling my home of twenty years and moving to a place not quite so heavily “patrolled”.

    No broken windows in Carmel Indiana and no respect for the constitution either.

  3. I’ve started reading a collection of Wilson’s essays–“On Character”–and based only on the two essays I have so far read from that book (the introduction and the chapter on drug illegalization), I think I can say the following. I think I agree with him that character matters and matters a lot when it comes to crime and the functioning of society. I think I disagree, at least so far, with what appears to be his faith that the state can inculcate “character” and that such inculcation, even if it works, is necessarily worth the price. Again, perhaps I am too precipitously ascribing to him a vision of the state’s proper role that he doesn’t really have. But that’s what I get from what I’ve read so far.

    Another takeaway is even more speculative. He seems to assume, along with an interlocutor/opponent in an encounter he describes in his introduction, that what counts as (good) “character” is by and large indicative of “middle-class values.” He doesn’t (again, so far) come out and make that argument, and I’m not sure how central that point is to Wilson’s overall worldview, but if he insists on that link, I think it is quite presumptuous to say that “good character” just so happily corresponds to middle-classness, even given what I consider the over-expansive definition of “middle class” entertained so often in contemporary America.

    I need to read more, however. I intend to read the other essays in the book and his book on bureaucracy is on order through interlibrary loan.

  4. James Hanley says:


    I think Wilson walks a fine line, occasionally taking steps on each side of it. He clearly recognizes that institutions (rules, procedures, norms) shape behavior, not solely as a matter of incentives but also in how they shape our thinking about what we do (which is where character comes in). So government, as a set of institutions, would be expected to do that as well. But where he may go wrong is in his assumptions about how well we can consciously shape those institutions to shape character. I think it can be done to some extent, but with some pretty stringent limits.

  5. James,

    I think I agree with your last sentence (and the rest as well).

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