James Q. Wilson has been called “the smartest man in the United States,” “the Sinatra of social science” and “a man as distinctive as the Q” that served as his middle initial. His death last Friday at age 80 represents the loss of a rare and brilliant illuminant for conservatives (although Wilson once wrote that he did not think of himself as a conservative “neo or paleo“), but it is also an invitation to those of us who never knew him personally to rediscover both the man and his work.
The casual student of political science — and someone not particularly immersed in the modern conservative movement — is probably most apt to remember Wilson for his “Broken Windows” theory (the idea that tolerating slight criminal infractions leads to more serious crimes), which Rudy Giuliani applied practically as mayor of New York City and Malcolm Gladwell later highlighted in his popular book, The Tipping Point.
But Wilson was also in the vanguard of towering thinkers who, in wisdom and humility, admitted that “we know less than we thought we knew about how to change the human condition.” That admission was a brave step back from the audacity and arrogance of progressivism, which prescribes a policy solution to every human problem and posits the possibility of an earthly utopia.
George Will captures the practical, moral bend of Wilson’s mind:
Try, he wrote, to think “of a human want or difficulty that is not now defined as a ‘public policy problem.’ ” The defining is done by elites to whose ideas the political system has become so open that changes of policy often result not from changes of public opinion but from changes in the way elites think. Liberal elites define problems as amenable to government engineering of new social structures. Conservative elites emphasize the cultural roots of many problems and hence their intractability.
America, Wilson said, increasingly faces “problems that do not seem to respond, or to respond enough, to changes in incentives.” This is because culture is often determinative, is harder to change than incentives and impedes individuals’ abilities to respond to incentives. If Wilson was right, and the memory of man runneth not to when he wasn’t, his wisdom should inform America’s worries about increasing inequality:
Largely because of genetic factors and partly because of advantages of nurturing that cannot be redistributed by government, people differ in aptitudes. Society tends to reward useful aptitudes. This produces hierarchies of pay and power that are resistant to rearrangement by government, including government attempts to redistribute income. Such attempts often ignore how income differences are necessary to reward activities and ignore history, which suggests that economic growth, which redistribution often inhibits, does more than redistributionist measures to narrow inequalities.
Wilson warned that we should be careful about what we think we are, lest we become that. Human nature, he said, is not infinitely plastic; we cannot be socialized to accept anything. We do not recoil from Auschwitz only because our culture has so disposed us. Children, Wilson thought, are intuitive moralists, but instincts founded in nature must be nurtured in families. The fact that much of modern life, from family disintegration to scabrous entertainment, is shocking is evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked. And the highest purpose of politics is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that nurtures rather than weakens the promptings of the moral sense.
Wilson’s intellectual contributions to the country, clearly, were impressive and important — but he has something more to teach us than just how to think. Like Andrew Breitbart, Wilson lived fully, with an appetite to digest new ideas wherever he encountered them, whether in the actual works of Aristotle or in their modern, popular distillation in “Calvin and Hobbes.” Wilson’s colleague Harvey C. Mansfield highlights a bit more of “the man” and not just “the mind”:
There are two other things you need to know about Jim Wilson. This wonderful man had a wonderful wife. In the tradition of old-fashioned husbands, everything he did was done for her—and not to settle a personal identity crisis.
And he was very American. He never preached Americanism, but he liked the things Americans like: baseball, steak, beer, cars. And when not keeping up with the profession, he liked a good book.
It’s Wilson’s humanity — and, indeed, the humanity of all the seemingly superhuman heroes of modern conservatism — that fascinates me most. Since I informally “joined” the conservative movement by accepting my first job out of college at The Heritage Foundation, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to meet so many of the people whose work I’d long admired — and to realize that they attained their positions simply by being themselves and by refusing to descend to the cheapness of imitation. Oh, it sounds so cheesy, but it’s so true; we’re all called to be “as distinctive as the Q.” The juxtaposition of Breitbart’s and Wilson’s deaths is a reminder of that. They were two very different men, but with two similarly outsized impacts. The only way to do that — to memorably and lastingly impact others — is to contribute what only you can, whatever it might be.