March 3 2012
It seems unfair that last week we lost both a happy warrior, Andrew Breitbart, and one of the best thinkers on our side of the aisle, James Q. Wilson, America’s preeminent political scientist, dead Friday at the age of 80.
Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield made graceful remarks about Wilson only hours after learning of his death. The Weekly Standard published a version of Mansfield’s remarks:
He was the most complete political scientist of his generation, always at the forefront, active in “the profession” and prominent in the university. His long list of books began with a study of the McGovernite phenomenon, The Amateur Democrat, and then a book—Negro Politics, in the nomenclature of the time—introducing the subject of ethnicity to the study of political science. He did not lead a life of crime, but he contributed several books to the study of crime and human nature, including a book on the FBI and another with the wonderful title Varieties of Police Behavior. He coauthored the famous theory of “broken windows”—arguing that law enforcement needed to be concerned with the details of orderliness and with preserving the appearance of a “good neighborhood.”
The "broken windows" article was perhaps the most important article about crime published in the 1980s. It stressed community policing to promote public order and fixing small problems before they got big:
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.
The Weekly Standard has a round-up of tributes to Wilson and a link to the famous “broken windows” article in the Atlantic. Wilson stressed the importance of character, was a lapidary writer, and inevitably counterintuitive (what did he propose as “a cure for selfishness” in a 1994 work? Property rights).
George Will quotes the Wilsonian thought that we must carry with us into this year’s presidential election:
Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything.
James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012