Sunday, March 4, 2012

James Q. Wilson in His Own Words

At WSJ, "Excerpts from the late social scientist's op-eds in The Wall Street Journal."

And from the editors, "James Q. Wilson: An empiricist with a moral sense—and he could write too":
One of our editors once made the mistake of referring to James Q. Wilson as a sociologist, and he was quickly rebuked with a note that, no, the professor was a political scientist. Jim Wilson liked to get things right, which as far as we can remember he always was.

Wilson was indeed a political scientist, and in the old-fashioned sense: He only concluded what the evidence allowed, and he applied this method to politics, broadly defined as the choices we make about how we govern ourselves. Over his career, as the modern university grew more and more obscurantist and irrelevant, Wilson's scholarship—on everything from poverty to crime to bureaucracy to morals—moved public policy and changed America for the better. He died yesterday, at 80, from leukemia.

Wilson made his name in the last century, when he was a young professor at Harvard and people still believed that government could create something it would call "the Great Society." Wilson belonged to the cohort of thinkers including Edward Banfield, Irving Kristol and Pat Moynihan who were skeptical of such central planning and abstractions. The joke about the French philosopher—"We know it works in fact, but will it work in theory?"—is less funny when the supposed technocrats don't care if something works in fact, only in theory....

One reason Wilson's ideas were successful—welfare reform is among his other policy contributions—is that they were grounded in data, hard facts and the evidence of experience. But his empiricism was special because it always respected the complexity and contingency that prevails in the real world. Few phrases in the English language are responsible for as much bad thinking as "studies show" or "research suggests." If Wilson was guided by good evidence, not ideology, he also understood its limits.
Previously: "James Q. Wilson, 1931 – 2012."

Bonus: From Harvey Mansfield, at Weekly Standard, "Political Scientist, Par Excellence: James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012." And a fabulous roundup from Daniel Halper, "Remembering James Q. Wilson."