Remembering James Q. Wilson

The nation has suffered a great loss.

Heather R. Higgins is President of The Randolph Foundation, on whose board Professor James Q. Wilson served for the last 20 years.I first encountered Professor James Q. Wilson over 30 years ago, when I was 16 and enrolled in the Harvard Summer Debate Institute; our topic was crime, and of the five policy books we were asked to read as source materials, not one, but two, were by Jim. He was considered the dean of the study of crime; no one else, I was told, came close. (And this was before he authored, with George Kelling, the "broken windows" hypothesis which dramatically affected how police forces later dealt with crime.)Not only was his subject-matter on point, Jim was a two-time national debate champion, and a professor at Harvard, so the synergy was natural. When he addressed us, his encyclopedic command of data, incisive mind, great modesty, and gentle humor were on full display.I soon learned that crime wasn't his only field. My father ran a foundation which dealt with a broad range of public policy matters, and Irving Kristol recommended that Dad put Jim on the board.[ See the latest political cartoons.]There couldn't have been a better recommendation; Jim had well-earned the moniker which Daniel Patrick Moynihan bestowed on him when commending him to President Nixon: "the smartest man in America." Jim's expertise extended from particular policy areas like welfare to the large structural questions of government and bureaucracy. Moreover, in almost any field he was a copious reader of not only the popular but the academic literature and could advise on who were the most rigorous and honest minds in those fields of study.Jim also set the standard for a truly additive board member: he never talked to hear himself speak, his questions were few but penetrating, his analysis was always without agenda and fair-minded, and  his comments not only concisely summarized but then advanced the discussion.My own personal policy epiphany derived from an article Jim authored for The Public Interest in I believe 1985. It walked through how much less improvement had been seen in crime, illegitimacy, and other statistics of societal health than had been than predicted by the models which believed that economic growth and changes in tax and regulatory policy would be sufficient to change behavior.[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]It was the beginning of Jim's growing exposition of the idea that there was another leg of the stool, which our policies might affect more deeply than we knew: that was our cultural values, our moral sense, our expectations of what is due to and from us, expectations which perhaps determine how long a society can stay free, grateful, and prospering, rather than dependent, entitled, and haggling over a stagnant or shrinking pie.One would never guess, but this mild mannered professor, every inch careful and diplomatic, adored driving unbelievably fast in cars of exceptional power (as police forces loved him, I believe there were certain stretches of solitary road around this nation where there was a tacit understanding that no one would notice just how fast Jim was going), rounding up cattle on horseback in the most rugged of circumstances, being a Master Scuba Diver (he authored with his beloved wife Roberta, whom he had met in high school, a book on life in coral reefs), and relishing extraordinary wines.[ See pictures of Notable Deaths of 2011]This past December Jim was honored by the National Institute of Social Sciences with their gold medal, which is given to those few Americans who have "made the highest contribution to the welfare and improvement of American—and often world—society." Jim would add this to his Presidential Medal of Honor, and asked me to accept the medal on his behalf as he was unable to travel to New York.In accepting for Jim, I read some remarks from him, which have portions which seem worth recalling now:
I did not grow up expecting to win a medal. I was the first member of my family for as many generations as I could count who went to college, and that by accident. My high school English teacher visited me the summer after I had graduated from his school. I was busy learning how to fix carburetors in my father's auto repair shop—I was going to be a mechanic. He said I should go to a nearby college and he had arranged admission. "When does it start?" I asked. "In a month" he answered. "And they will give you a scholarship." So off I went.