James Q. Wilson—who was this nation’s foremost political scientist, literally the author of the definitive textbook on the workings of American government, a writer of uncommon grace and clarity, and a man who believed more than anyone I’ve ever known in the power of the human capacity to reason to change things for the better—died this morning at the age of 80.
To my mind, his greatest and most enduring book in his oeuvre is The Moral Sense, in which this very practically-minded man carefully lays out the case for the existence of the title condition as an innate condition of humankind. But his signal contribution to American life over the past 30 years lies in his work as a criminologist, and his delineation (with George Kelling) of the theory of “broken windows,” about how social disorder and crime are in large measure the result of little transgressions in behavior and against the common weal, that, ignored and unchallenged, grow into ever larger ones. The expostulation of the broken windows theory literally inaugurated the revolution in consciousness in American policing and criminal justice that led to the astounding crime drop of the 1990s—a drop that continues to this day.
Jim Wilson was also the author of nearly 60 articles for COMMENTARY, the first in 1966, the last in 2007. Here is a sample of the limpidity of his prose, from a 1993 piece called “What Is Moral, and How Do We Know It?”:
I am inclined to think that most people most of the time live lives of ordinary decency as they struggle to raise children, earn a living, and retain the respect of their friends. But we cannot dismiss the possibility that what many intellectuals have come to discredit some people will come to ignore. If morality is thought to be nothing but convention or artifice, then it will occur to those persons who are weakly attached to society and its rules that they are free to act as they wish provided they can get away with it. And if they would have broken the rules anyway, the relativism of our age makes it easier for them to justify their action by the claim that the rules are arbitrary enactments.
I wish to argue for an older view of human nature, one that assumes that people are naturally endowed with certain moral sentiments. We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human. Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms, and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage. These desires become evident when we think disinterestedly about ourselves or others.
This article, along with every other article written by James Q. Wilson for COMMENTARY, is now free to everyone as a tribute to his decency, his soundness of mind, and his contribution to American thought at its best. His loss is irreplaceable, but his writing will live on.