Remembering James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson is dead. I find it very hard to write those words. While I was not his student, his work had a profound impact on me, as it did on so many other political scientists. He was, quite simply, the most consequential student of American politics of the last half-century.

Two decades ago, Jim (he insisted I call him this when I worked with him on a project a couple of years ago, but it still feels too familiar) wrote a review of a book celebrating community policing for the Monthly. One quote from it sums up his whole worldview. “Like most missionaries, the authors do not pause to examine the problems and limitations of their strategy. Like all good converts, we are asked first to believe and only then question…I believe—up to a point. At that point, I have some questions that, to my great regret, are not seriously addressed in this book.” Jim understood missionaries. But he was not one of them.

Fundamentally, he was immune to the missionary spirit because he took the view from the ground. He focused squarely on the teacher in the classroom given unclear guidance as to what to teach and how, the cop on the beat asked to “handle the situation,” the interest group leader who needed to keep the lights on and make payroll. Jim’s work was a frosty tonic to missionaries, because he kept his gaze directed squarely at the mundane work associated with coordinating ordinary human beings. No plan for human improvement sold by missionaries would actually make a difference if it didn’t alter the very real structural constraints that caused these people to behave the way they did.

Jim’s truly great books (I would say The Amateur Democrat, Bureaucracy, Political Organizations, and Varieties of Police Behavior, although others with somewhat different tastes would say Thinking About Crime, Crime and Human Nature, and The Moral Sense) explained to us how people doing superficially similar things could none the less behave quite differently. Jim was, in this sense, the ultimate “splitter” in an era in which the power in the social sciences was moving toward the “lumpers.” Jim’s splitting was not just a temperament, it was a method. He and his students actually got out in the field, interviewing bureaucrats, lawyers, interest group leaders, cops, political activists and regulators, in an era when political scientists were retreating to the computer lab.

Out in the field, the sheer variety of political experience could not be denied. Where many economics-influenced students of bureaucracy had modeled government agencies as maximizing the size of their budgets (the ultimate “lumper” argument), Wilson simply observed that many agencies willingly accepted a reduction in their budgets or even the removal of entire programs. The more one dug around, Wilson argued, the clearer it was that agencies behaved very differently depending on the task they performed and their relationship to their political environment. There were things we could say about how bureaucrats facing different tasks and environments might behave, but nothing particularly useful we could say about the behavior of bureaucrats as such. Improving the behavior of those bureaucrats, therefore, depended on durably altering the structural situation that they faced on a day to day basis.

Jim also had brilliant things to say about the behavior of interest groups, in his great book Political Organizations. Jim observed that, no matter how lofty their goals, every interest group and social movement still has to engage in what he famously called “organizational maintenance.” How groups are structured, how they get the resources to do their work and the constraints placed upon leaders, all determine their behavior just as much as the beliefs that they are supposed to act on. The insights that came out of Wilson’s approach were vividly illustrated in his student Peter Skerry’s great book, Mexican-Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, which showed how the positions and strategy of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund reflected the pressures of raising money from large foundations to support the (often very different) interests of ordinary Mexican-Americans.

Wilson’s approach helped me make sense of the strategies of conservative litigating groups in the 1970s, who successfully raised millions of dollars while doing very little successful work in court. In The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, I argued that these groups, dependent as they were on direct mail and legally unsophisticated business donors, had created a very stable arrangement in which they gave money and the organizations claimed to be “sticking it to the liberals,” even as very little of substance or effect was actually being done. The “purpose” of these organizations, that is, explained a great deal less than their structural situation.

While others will focus on his more philosophically oriented books, like The Moral Sense, I believe Jim’s greatest legacy is his ceaseless effort to present the variety of human experience that accompanies the difficult, exasperating, but necessary effort to govern ourselves. I am a liberal, and thus believe that more can be done in that effort that Jim though possible or prudent. But every time I begin to find my missionary zeal building up around some idea or the other, the James Q. Wilson instinct in me taps me on the shoulder and asks some uncomfortable question.

Those of us who consider ourselves Wilsonians will pass along that questioning, skeptical but not nihilistic spirit to our students. And in that sense, while Jim has passed from this world, his spirit is immortal. God bless his soul.

Steven M. Teles

Steven M. Teles is associate professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and the author most recently of The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.