Good Questions for our Wilson influenced Criminal Justice system.
Much to Answer For
James Q. Wilson’s Legacy
The esteemed political scientist and criminologist James Q.
Wilson died in March. He wrote many important works, including a leading
textbook on American government currently in its twelfth edition. He
was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.
significant legacy, however, lies in the impact of his scholarship and
journalism on the contemporary structures of social control in the
United States. His 1975 book Thinking About Crime
academic justification for a massive increase in imprisonment in the
United States that began in the late 1970s and has yet fully to run its
course. (The United States incarcerates at five times the rate of
Britain, the leading jailer in Europe.) It is therefore entirely
fitting—indeed, imperative—that there be extensive, critical public
discussion about the intellectual impact of this towering figure of the
study of American government.
While I came to disagree sharply
with him on criminal justice policy, I must acknowledge that I liked Jim
Wilson, the man. He was urbane, witty, and generous with his time. He
was unfailingly open to hearing both sides of any argument. I knew him
to be loyal to a fault, even-tempered, and often a wise observer of
American politics. I admired his modesty and his prodigious work ethic.
Indeed, my appreciation of “Gentleman Jim” dates back nearly three
decades, to 1983, when he came to my humble Afro-American Studies office
at Harvard, practically hat in hand, with a draft chapter on “race and
crime” for an as-yet-unpublished book, Crime and Human Nature
. He was writing it with Richard Herrnstein, who would go on to write The Bell Curve
(1994) with Charles Murray. Wilson asked for my unsparing critique,
which I provided. It impressed me that, when the book appeared two years
later, he and Herrnstein had taken my criticisms seriously.
went on to work closely with Wilson on a number of projects. In 1987 we
co-edited a volume on families, schools, and delinquency prevention. We
served together for a decade on the editorial board of the influential
neoconservative magazine The Public Interest
. And in the early 1990s we were colleagues on the Council of Academic Advisors at the American Enterprise Institute.
last association ended for me in 1995, when I publicly resigned my
position after AEI fellows wrote two incendiary and what seemed to me
borderline racist books—The Bell Curve
and The End of Racism
by Dinesh D’Souza. In those years, and partly in response to those two
books, I began my long march out of the right wing of American
intellectual life. And, in so doing, I slowly came to the view—which I
continue to hold—that some of Wilson’s labors have done enormous damage
to the quality of American democracy. His rationalizing and legitimating
of over-reliance on incarceration in U.S. social policy have been
particularly destructive. It frustrates me that even as mounting
evidence over the past decade showed that crime control had become too
punitive, Wilson stubbornly reiterated the views that he had developed
four decades ago.
As a public policy intellectual, Wilson was the
product of a particular moment in American history. One has to think of
him in connection with such writers as his mentor in the Harvard
government department, Edward Banfield; his friend and colleague at The Public Interest
Nathan Glazer; and his compatriot and like-minded social critic, Daniel
Patrick Moynihan. That generation saw the postwar liberal belief in the
possibility of a progressive resolution to the “urban problem” crash
upon the rocky shoals of the riot-torn, welfare-fed, criminal, and black
1960s metropolis. While the left did not distinguish itself in those
years, neither did Wilson’s cohort. Considered from today’s perspective,
much of what the nascent neoconservative thinkers had to say was pretty
appalling. Banfield’s classic lament of the failures of 1960s urban
policy, The Unheavenly City
, looks an awful lot like
reactionary drivel. (His argument that persistent poverty is due to the
bad values and character of the poor—first set out in his book about
Italy, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society
—might have made
sense for Sicily, but did not travel well to the South Bronx.) And in
retrospect Moynihan—whose work Wilson often extolled—hardly comes off
looking like a great thinker. Calling a spade a spade turns out not to
be a social policy.
In my long march out of the right wing, I came to believe that Wilson’s labors did enormous damage to American democracy.
Call me unforgiving, but I can still remember sitting at Jim and
Roberta Wilson’s dinner table in Malibu, California in January 1993
listening to Murray explain, much to my consternation and with Jim’s
silent acquiescence, that social inequality is inevitable because “dull”
parents are simply less effective at child-rearing than “bright” ones.
(I rejected then, and still do, Murray and Herrnstein’s claim that
profound social disparities are due mainly to variation in innate
individual traits that cannot be remedied via social policy.) Neither
can Glenn Loury in 2012 ignore what he failed to see in 1983: that
Wilson and Herrnstein’s Crime and Human Nature
—a book that sets
out to lay bare the underlying bio-genetic, somatic, and psychological
determinants of individuals’ criminal behavior—is an enterprise of
dubious scientific value. The behavioral theories of social control that
Wilson spawned—see, for instance, his 1983 Atlantic Monthly
“Raising Kids” (not unlike training pets, as it happens)—and the
pop–social psychology salesmanship of his and George Kelling’s so-called
“theory” about broken windows is a long way from rocket science, or
even good social science. This work looks more like narrative in the
service of rationalizing and justifying hierarchy, subordination,
coercion, and control. In short, it smacks of highbrow, reactionary
But, unlike most tabloid scribblers, Wilson’s
writings had a massive effect. The broken windows argument—by cracking
down on minor offenses, the police can prevent the perception of
disorder that leads to more serious crimes—has influenced urban law
enforcement strategists throughout the nation. Even so, as scholarly
critics across the ideological spectrum have noted, there is little
evidence beyond the anecdotal to show that such “quality of life”
policing actually leads to lower crime rates. When I consider the impact
of his ideas, I can’t help but think about the millions of folks being
hassled even as we speak by coercive state agents who are acting on some
Wilsonian theory recommending stop-and-frisk policing.
can I overlook the reinforcement of subliminal racial stigmata
associated with the institutions of confinement, surveillance, and
patrol that Americans have embraced over the past two generations under
the watchful and approving gaze of Professor Wilson.
think Jim Wilson had a racist bone in his body. Neither do I doubt his
sincerity when he expressed regret, as he often did, that blacks are
overrepresented among those being punished for having committed crimes.
But intent is one thing; results are another. A politics of vengeance
has abetted the unprecedented rise in U.S. incarceration rates since
1980. I am made keenly aware of the deleterious impact these policies
have had on residents of urban black communities, law-abiders and
law-breakers alike. This was not Wilson’s intent, but plainly it was one
consequence of ideas that he championed.
Was Jim Wilson
fair-minded and decent? Yes. Did he run a good meeting? Was he an
effective academic entrepreneur? Yes to both. Was he often a penetrating
observer of and always a prolific writer on American politics? To be
sure. Was he right about the direction that incarceration needed to go
in 1970? Perhaps. Did liberals underestimate the fierce political
backlash from the disgruntled ethnic working classes circa 1975, as
Wilson strongly argued? Yes, they did. Wilson was not wrong about
But is his 1997 book The Moral Sense
cites human nature to make a case against moral relativism, and which
Wilson thought his most important publication—a work for the ages? I
doubt it seriously. Is Thinking About Crime
up there in the pantheon of American social criticism along with Silent Spring
, The Other America
, The Feminine Mystique
, or The Fire Next Time
? Not hardly.
Q. Wilson was not the Thomas Hobbes of our time—though it is a good
guess that he fancied himself grappling with a Leviathan. A cloistered
moral sanctimony (“Tobacco shortens one’s life; cocaine debases it”)
coupled with an enthusiasm for police work (“prison in America . . .
helps explain why this country has a lower rate of burglary than
Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, and the Netherlands”):
that’s another way to think about the legacy of James Q. Wilson. Unkind
to be sure, but not inaccurate.
With all due respect to the
influence of his writings on bureaucracy, policing, and social policy,
I’m just not buying the hagiographies that appeared in the likes of the Wall Street Journal
, Los Angeles Times
, and Boston Globe