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James Q. Wilson’s Legacy

The Weekly Standard has a cover story, written by Chris DeMuth, on the late political scientist James Q. Wilson. DeMuth does a wonderful job summarizing a half-century’s worth of Jim Wilson’s scholarship and writing. He says, among other things, that Wilson’s book Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, must be read in full to appreciate its power and depth. In addition, Jeremy Rabkin has an article in which Rabkin says its lesson for would-be reformers, from the left or the right, is: Don’t expect too much.

With those words in mind, I recently came across a 1991 article in Public Administration Review in which five of Wilson’s former students offered their insights on their mentor’s book (the publication was based on remarks made at an American Political Science Association symposium). They considered Bureaucracy to be a milestone in the public administration literature. Steven Kelman pointed to the characteristic modesty of Wilson, who in his preface wrote that “though what follows is not very theoretical, neither is it very practical.” The reader, we’re told, “will not learn very much – if anything – about how to run a government agency.” But there was also modesty in Wilson’s confidence in our capacity to pull the just the right policy levers and remake the world. At the end of Bureaucracy, Kelman (and Rabkin) point out, Wilson put forward what he called “A Few Modest Suggestions That May Make a Small Difference.”

John J. DiIulio, Jr. said his mentor and friend was “motivated by the intrinsic joys of intellectual puzzles, a strong contrarian strain, and impatience with oversimplifications, and a cautionary, even pessimistic outlook on the practical payoffs (if any) of general knowledge about complex human affairs.”

These observations are terrifically important, and deeply conservative ones. Human society is endlessly complicated. And having worked in three administrations (Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43), I can testify first hand that the ability to predict with precision the effects of public policy on human behavior is often different than we anticipate. In some instances, policy reforms can catalyze change quicker than we anticipate (see welfare and crime); other times problems remain frustratingly durable and immune to the effects of policy (see everything from marriage and family life to spreading democracy to the Arab world). The point is not that we shouldn’t try to alter things; it is that we should do so with our eyes wide open, ever respectful of the Law of Unintended Consequences, and always open to new evidence, to readjustments, and to refinement.

That is, I think, what Professor Wilson would want us to keep in mind. So sayeth, at least, those students who knew him best.

 



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