James Q. Wilson, RIP

James Q. Wilson has died at the age of 80. He was arguably the greatest social scientist of his generation and, inarguably, a great teacher, mentor, and patriot.

Jim Wilson’s writings, teaching (at Harvard, UCLA, and Pepperdine), and personal guidance have had a profound influence on several generations of scholars, thinkers, and public intellectuals (including among so many others William Kristol, whose tribute appears here.) But there is no “Wilson school” of political science: his mind was too encyclopedic, his range of interests too broad, and his contempt for academic sub-specialization too pronounced. Nor is there single a “Wilson theorem” or theory; his work combines a deep respect for empirics with an equally deep disdain for the number-crunching, mindless regressing, and model-building that has overtaken political science (especially including its rat choice variety). It’s JQW’s seriousness of purpose and his insistence on the integrity of the scholarly enterprise, not any doctrine or specific finding, that have left a lasting impression on his students.

James Q. Wilson’s writings over a span of five decades include major books on big, fundamental questions of social organization—foremost perhaps The Moral Sense (1993), a neo-Humean work he considered his “most important” book. They include a long list of books on crime and law enforcement (“cops and robbers,” he occasionally called it) that shaped scholarship and public policy in significant and salutary ways.  And they include pathbreaking works on political organization and public administration. Bureaucracy (1989) may be the only book students need to read on that subject; beyond doubt, it is a book they must read. A good follow-up, or at any rate a favorite of mine, is Watching Fishes: Life and Behavior on Coral Reefs (1985), co-authored with his wife Roberta (both avid scuba divers). Her photography is breathtaking, and the text is pure Jim Wilson: the fish organize and respond to incentives.

The slightly quaint “scholar and gentleman” phrase captures James Q. Wilson: serious and conscientious in his work; generous in giving guidance and advice; unfailingly civil and courteous to friends, colleagues, and political opponents alike.

Not that you’d want to see Jim Wilson angry. With a lapse into the kiss-and-tell he loathed: I did see him (almost) lose his cool once, at a board meeting of a family foundation for which I worked and which supported (among many other pro-democracy groups and individuals) the Peruvian economist and activist Hernando de Soto. On this occasion, the Board—including JQW—was considering a grant to bullet-proof a car for Mr. de Soto, then under death threats from guerillas. A family board member opined that this was outside the foundation’s mandate and pointless besides: “If they want to kill him, they’ll kill him anyhow.” JQW, visibly infuriated: “Young man, I am willing to accept your advice if you agree to fly to Peru and inform Mr. de Soto personally of your position. Otherwise, we will approve this grant.” Without further discussion, they made the grant.

I never had the privilege of studying under James Q. Wilson. I do have the privilege of having benefited, over many years and along with countless others, from his advice, guidance, support, and example. We mourn Jim Wilson’s death with sadness, gratitude, and admiration.