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.