James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012, R.I.P.

An intellectual pioneer and his iron legacy.

One of the more puzzling paradoxes of the current economic downturn is that crime rates have continued to fall, reaching a 40-year low in 2010, even as the economy has been mired in an extended recession. That runs contrary to traditional theories of crime as fundamentally an economic matter, increasing when opportunity dwindles, unemployment rises, and the economy worsens. So what explains the continued drop in crime?

The late political scientist James Q. Wilson, who died last week at the age of 80, provided a compelling answer to that question. A major factor in crime’s continued decline in a time of high unemployment, Wilson argued, is smarter policing. Rather than reacting to crime after it happens, police today take a proactive approach, targeting “hot spots” of crime that have a disproportionate impact on community crime rates. What Wilson did not add was that such police strategies owed a great deal to his pioneering work on crime and public policy. Nor was this the extent of his contributions. A towering intellect, Wilson’s range of interests was stunning in its scope, and was matched only by the depth of his learning and the elegance of his writing.

Academic polish did not prevent Wilson from aggressively challenging and ultimately overturning some of the prevailing liberal views on the problems afflicting society, most notably on the issue of crime. In a famous 1982 article in The Atlantic Monthly, written with co-author George Kelling, Wilson demonstrated that social disorder and crime, rather than the products of racial or capitalist oppression, were inextricably and sequentially linked. Heeding the experiences of police, Wilson and Kelling used the example of a broken window to show how even the perception of social neglect encouraged criminal activity. Thus, a building with a broken window that is not repaired will soon have all of its windows broken.

This was not specifically a problem of social class or race. By way of example, Wilson cited an experiment by a Stanford psychologist in which a car with its hood up was abandoned on the street in the Bronx and in upscale Palo Alto, California. In the Bronx, it was set upon within ten minutes; within 24 hours everything valuable had been stripped. Most of the vandals, however, were well-dressed whites. In Palto Alto, the car was untouched for a week. Then its window was smashed. In the span of just a few hours, the car was overturned and completely destroyed. Once again, the vandals were primarily respectable whites. The upshot was clear: Even seemingly civilized communities could experience an increase in crime once it was perceived that they tolerated social disorder.

“Broken windows," as it came to be known, was not simply an academic theory. Once adapted by city and municipal governments, it fueled a transformational change in policing that helped to arrest the crime wave of the 1980s. The key lesson was that by tolerating minor crimes – graffiti, littering, turnstile jumping in subways, aggressive panhandling – cities invited more violent crimes. That lesson was not lost on New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who oversaw a policing shift toward minor offenses. The media and the left raged that Giuliani was targeting squeegee men, but the resulting and dramatic drop in crime – something that was once regarded as an unalterable fact of life in New York – settled the issue. Wilson had been right.

Crime wasn't the only area where Wilson’s contributions were immense. Politics was his academic specialty, but Wilson understood that to understand politics one first had to understand the culture from which it emerged and the character and values of the people who made up that culture. This was the subject of what Wilson regarded as his most important book, The Moral Sense (1993). At the heart of the book was Wilson's exasperation that Americans lacked the language, though not the interest, to discuss such crucial issues openly and intelligently. Even as the country has become more secular, it has remained fixated with questions of morality and values. But rather than defining and defending moral values, Americans retreated from the discussion, falling back on a default relativism that refused to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and evil.

Wilson would have none of it. Against the temper of the times, he upbraided people for refusing to pass moral judgment and for claiming that there was no moral standard by which to measure their society or others. Presumably, Wilson scolded, these people “would oppose infanticide only if it involved their own child. This is sometimes called tolerance. I think a better name would be brutality.”  Like much of Wilson's work, The Moral Sense illuminated what it means to be a moral person and a good citizen, even if some suggested that such questions were no longer worthy of consideration.

Wilson's concern with morality also influenced his study of free-market capitalism, yet another subject about which he wrote wisely. No apologist for capitalism's excesses, Wilson nonetheless defended it against the charge, made so often by the academic left, that it was, if not immoral, then at the very least amoral. Wilson argued instead for the "morality of capitalism," based on its uncanny ability not only to produce material abundance but also to encourage discipline, to improve people's lives, and to sustain and nurture democracy. At a time when the morality of capitalism is once again being called into question, Wilson's work stands as a powerful rebuttal.

The price of freedom, it's often said, is constant vigilance. The same might well be said for civilization. James Q. Wilson devoted his life’s work to exploring the values and political structures that sustained civilization and the threats that confronted it. The streets of New York are just one of the places better off for his achievement.

Tags: Crime