from the Wall St Journal:
James Q. Wilson
An empiricist with a moral sense—and he could write too.
One of our editors once made the mistake of referring to James Q. Wilson as a sociologist, and he was quickly rebuked with a note that, no, the professor was a political scientist. Jim Wilson liked to get things right, which as far as we can remember he always was.
Wilson was indeed a political scientist, and in the old-fashioned sense: He only concluded what the evidence allowed, and he applied this method to politics, broadly defined as the choices we make about how we govern ourselves. Over his career, as the modern university grew more and more obscurantist and irrelevant, Wilson's scholarship—on everything from poverty to crime to bureaucracy to morals—moved public policy and changed America for the better. He died yesterday, at 80, from leukemia.
Wilson made his name in the last century, when he was a young professor at Harvard and people still believed that government could create something it would call "the Great Society." Wilson belonged to the cohort of thinkers including Edward Banfield, Irving Kristol and Pat Moynihan who were skeptical of such central planning and abstractions. The joke about the French philosopher—"We know it works in fact, but will it work in theory?"—is less funny when the supposed technocrats don't care if something works in fact, only in theory.
Columnist Holman Jenkins on James Q. Wilson's contributions to conservative thought.
Wilson was probably best known for his work as a criminologist and developed with George Kelling the "broken windows" approach to law-breaking. Their insight was that "public order is a fragile thing, and if you don't fix the first broken window, soon all the windows will be broken," as he put it in an interview in these pages last year. This philosophy and the new policing strategies that it inspired helped to rescue New York and other major cities in the late 1980s and 1990s from the social and criminal catastrophe that had developed and persisted over the previous two decades.
One reason Wilson's ideas were successful—welfare reform is among his other policy contributions—is that they were grounded in data, hard facts and the evidence of experience. But his empiricism was special because it always respected the complexity and contingency that prevails in the real world. Few phrases in the English language are responsible for as much bad thinking as "studies show" or "research suggests." If Wilson was guided by good evidence, not ideology, he also understood its limits.
He was a conservative because he believed that attempts to reorganize or transform the country were something the government does at its own peril, and everyone else's. Things as they are deserve a presumption of validity, and the risks of unintended consequences are likely to be high. He had confidence in humanity as moral creatures who acted accordingly most of the time—a theme that occupied him in his later years and informed his outstanding book, "The Moral Sense."
But he never lost his faith that when public policy went awry it could be improved through persuasion and reason. Wilson also had the gift of being able to write for a general audience, which is also why his ideas were so influential. We're proud to say he often graced these pages, as the nearby excerpts show. Our current political and social ills will be harder to solve without his rigor and brilliance.
A version of this article appeared Mar. 3, 2012, on page A14 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: James Q. Wilson.