By the time of his passing in 2012, James Q. Wilson had left an indelible mark on the nation through his work in political science and criminology. He was, along with William F. Buckley, Jr., Charles Murray and a few others, one of the reasons I chose to be a political conservative.
His contributions to the social sciences over the past forty years were immensely more important than anything most of our public officials are saying and doing now.
The 1960’s was an interesting time. On the one hand it was a time full of promise, as the civil rights’ movement pushed the United States to fulfill the obligations of Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The American economy chugged along at a brisk pace, bringing wealth and prosperity to millions of Americans. And Washington was populated by an army of bright, young forward thinkers. America was certainly on the move.
But all the hope and optimism that burned so brightly at the beginning of the decade seemed to give way to a new, nightmarish reality by the time the decade ended. National leaders such as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were taken down by the assassin’s bullet. Our major cities were beset by riots resulting in billions of dollars in damaged property and innumerable lives were destroyed. Average Americans, the great silent majority, wondered what happened to their America and the promises of the future.
Explanations were few and far between. Enter James Q. Wilson .
Wilson came to prominence in the early ‘60s as the author of numerous books concerning various subjects such as the organizational traits of groups and black leadership.
In 1966 he was appointed to chair the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, an initiative by the Johnson administration to determine the root causes of the ever growing crime rate in American cities. The Commission tagged racism as the main cause of crime, seemingly excusing the behavior of criminals, an assertion that was quietly rebuffed by White House officials. Wilson’s rebuff was not so quiet.
Wilson took the commission staff to task for shoddy work. He noted that the commission’s proposals, such as increased funding for social programs, had nothing to do with crime, but was rather an attempt to pander to welfare activists and racial extremists. It was this work that laid the groundwork for what would later become Wilson’s most famous social hypothesis, “the Broken Window Theory.”
According to Wilson, “The theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime.” Essentially, if a window is broken due to vandalism, fix it and arrest the vandal as soon as possible. Addressing the small problems promptly will help prevent bigger problems down the road.
Seems like common sense now but at the time it was groundbreaking and helped revolutionize the field of criminology. But it’s vintage Wilson. Don’t make excuses, don’t give criminals or vagrants cover for their bad behavior. Simply look at the empirical evidence and address the real root causes of a problem. Wilson’s ideas and contributions provided comfort for many middle of the road Americans and our nation should be grateful for that.
Carl Tate is a columnist for The News Virginian. He lives in Stuarts Draft.