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March 02, 2012 11:14 AM Remembering James Q. Wilson

By Steven M. Teles

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.

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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.
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Comments

  • Russell A. Burgos on March 04, 2012 1:59 AM:

    It was my good fortune to have known Jim as a graduate teaching assistant, as a research assistant, as a house-sitter for the wonderful home he and Roberta owned in Malibu, as a member of my Ph.D. dissertation committee, and as a friend.

    At the end of his UCLA career, Jim was associated with the business school rather than with the Department of Political Science. Many then (and now) speculated that he fled the "liberalism" of political science for the more conservative-friendly surroundings of the Anderson School of Management and then his subsequent sinecure as the "Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy" at Pepperdine University's graduate School of Public Policy.

    But it's not so -- partisan temper tantrums of that kind were beneath Jim's dignity.

    It was methodology and not ideology that prodded Jim to leave academic -- that is, scholarly -- political science.

    The domination of the rational choice paradigm over the field -- especially in its mid-1990s heyday -- put Jim off because he felt political scientists had lost sight of the "political" in their quest for recognition as a "science" -- that technology was replacing substance.

    For example, he was tickled silly by an anecdote I shared with him about a job talk given at UCLA by a young International Relations ABD with impeccable paper credentials from a top department.

    The young scholar had a splendid (and splendidly complex) formal model of war, replete with extraordinarily long proofs and a vast array of quantitative data that he brought to bear in computer-animated graphs -- and which, among other things, predicted Germany winning World War II.

    Because World War II looms rather large in world history -- not to mention in International Relations theory -- during the question-and-answer period I asked the candidate if he thought it fair that one might question the utility of model that produced such a discordant outcome -- after all, it wasn't as if he was incorrectly predicting the end of 1969's "Soccer War" between El Salvador and Honduras.

    It was a job candidate's dream. The audience, comprised almost exclusively of quantitative scholars and rational choice adherents, leaped to his defense; one faculty member (an International Relations theorist, no less) dismissed the question outright: "But look at the graphs!" he exclaimed, a superb demonstration of what I later described to Jim's great delight as "pagan political science methodolatry."

    Because UCLA's public affairs program was then at its nadir, the School of Management offered him the opportunity to concentrate on normative political science, as the graduate business curriculum at that time required a kind of "whole person" course (that is, one not focused on finance or management techniques and the like). Since questions of right and wrong, just and unjust, and the nature of a societal "The Good" had long occupied Jim's attention, it was a natural progression.

    Jim's later move to Pepperdine University was an artifact of geography, not ideology. Pepperdine's Malibu, California, campus was just 15 miles southeast of the Wilsons' beautiful home overlooking the Pacific, and Jim averred that the drive to Westwood was becoming rather more onerous in his advancing years than he was otherwise inclined to admit.

    Jim's responsibilities at Pepperdine consisted mainly of giving the occasional talk at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley -- something in which he reveled. Like his books on marriage and moral society, Jim saw public speaking as a logical part of the scholar's teaching mission. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that the world was his classroom, both as teacher and as student -- something anyone who had the privilege of seeing his beautiful underwater photography can attest to.

    We were from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, and though we disagreed on the proper ends of g

  • Russell A. Burgos on March 04, 2012 2:03 AM:

    We were from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, and though we disagreed on the proper ends of government -- as well as on the relative merits of be-bop versus Dixieland jazz -- with Jim disagreement was always professional and intellectual. It was never personal.

    I was especially indebted to Jim for the kindness he showed my family when I was recalled to active duty with the U.S. Army for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. I was a rather vocal critic of the Bush administration and the war afterwards, and though Jim disagreed with my criticism he was too much a gentleman to deny that my service had earned me the right to make it. I doubt I changed his mind, but I have no doubt that he gave my thoughts a fair hearing.

    Universities don't make them like Jim anymore, and from my point of view the country is the worse for it.

    At a time when discourse on matters of public policy is dominated by self-described "rodeo clowns" on one hand and by smooth-talking Establishment doyens with no subject matter expertise on the other, the United States could use a James Q. Wilson or two.

    Saul Bellow once wrote that memories keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. Jim left us a body of work that will keep the wolves at bay for a long time to come.

    Rest in peace, my friend.

  • Stacy on March 05, 2012 6:56 AM:

    I am also a political scientist who has long relied upon Wilson and had the privilege of being an undergraduate in one of his courses. These days, I teach at a prep school and I re-read his Bureaucracy book every few years and every year, when I teach that section of American Government, I read from the book to my students. He was a writer and thinker of great skill and the ability to critically assess the world as it was happening, not as some idealized model.

    Thanks for this very thoughtful tribute.

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