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.
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.
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.
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.
When in college a professor encouraged me to go to graduate school. I applied, knowing nothing about graduate study or what I wanted to learn. In an application to one university I said I wanted to study Japanese—this from a person who has absolutely no gift for foreign languages.
When in graduate school, a professor told me that if I ever learned to write clear English I might amount to something. "Stop writing what you think is social science," he said. He had been a journalist who wrote like an angel; he was now my thesis adviser. He was a great man and helped me as much as he could to write clearly.
Three men over two decades changed my life. If they were still alive, this medal should go to them. The three men were these: Richard Crossan was my high school English teacher and debate coach who somehow saw potential in me. Robert Morlan taught me about politics at the University of Redlands. And Edward C. Banfield was my University of Chicago thesis supervisor and the best teacher I have ever known.
When my thesis was published, I was hooked. I had to write more books. But on what? I was trained as a political scientist, so why do I write so little about politics? Because to me, political science is the study of the governed community in all of its aspects: how children grow up, what sustains intact families, the ways in which we manage disorder. And how we acquire our moral sense. In those days political science meant thinking seriously about important aspects of the human condition. That is what Aristotle did and that is what I wanted to do, not with Aristotle's wisdom (no one has that), but with his commitment to understanding the human social condition.
And so I wrote about things that seemed important and about which no one had said much: blacks in city government, reformers in local politics, police officers in various cities, the causes of crime and new ways to deal with it, the differences between strong and weak families, and the origins of our moral sense.
Today political science is more about regression equations than about describing things. The equations are sometimes useful, but had I been required to learn them, I would have gone back to my father's garage and resumed my struggle with carburetors. This would have been unfortunate since carburetors were soon replaced by fuel injection systems operated by computers. I would have wound up living on food stamps.
Jim was always modest and determined to share any praise with colleagues such as George Kelling and the late Richard Herrnstein. He didn't write books with preconceived ideas of where they would end up—he wrote them to answer great questions to which he wanted to find an answer. He didn't talk much about the numerous commissions and advisory boards on which he had served.
Though so much smarter than the many who are sure of their predictions and eager to impose their policies, Jim, who referred to himself as grumpy but who in fact was eternally optimistic, rested his faith in the wisdom that those things of which we are most sure are often proven wrong, and that the American people, if given time and opportunity, will find their way to a better future.
I have lost a beloved mentor and dear friend. Our country has lost a mind of insight, humility, and grace. But Heaven now hears the whoops of the wisest and fastest cowboy it's ever seen. Godspeed Jim.