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James Q. Wilson, RIP

One of the giants of contemporary political science, James Q. Wilson, has passed away. His writing displayed insightful commentary on areas of public policy--crime ("broken windows"), poverty, bureaucracy (the classic book), bioethics, marriage, and ethnic politics, plus a book on snorkeling,co-authored with his wife. I happened to use his Bureaucracy book last spring, originally published in 1989. Wilson taught us what questions to raise in examining political institutions. Some of his writings for the Claremont Institute can be found here. An appreciation of his work by Shep Melnick is here.

It is not to damn him with faint praise to say that Wilson was likely the nicest and the wisest President of the American Political Science Association. I can still recall the headshaking and denunciations of his presidential address, on "The Moral Sense."

Addendum: A conversation from 1987 with Wilson, conducted by Steve Hayward mostly.

Categories > Politics

Discussions - 4 Comments

At some point in the army, I became convinced that the entire system was a bureaucracy. (relevant to Wilson, because he considered the army as a bureaucracy)

Not to give credence to what Wilson disparaged as NPR's "worker empowerment", but I am either for this as an enlightened form of notice and comment or against it. I am not always for it, and not always against it.

In all seriousness there were policy changes and rule changes, that were supposed to be relevant, but really didn't impact how I was going to do the job.

On "worker empowerment"(whatever that is) I am reminded of a public sector labor law case involving the ROE (rules of engagement) of a local police union. The union wanted the changes in ROE to be "mandatory"(which means they had to be bargained about or discussed, in that state questions deemed "policy" could not be permissive.) The state won the case, in part because in terms of selling the case, it is hard to say that you want to bargain about when you can shoot people. Are police officers really going to say, pay us a little less and let us shoot more people?

This misses the point. It is entirely possible to change policy nuance, and still more or less go on as usual. It is almost comical that the Army Song gives prominance to the lyrics: "And the Army goes rolling along"

I don't think the class war between the so called "white collar" and "blue collar" workers is understood, nor do I think unions and what they bargain about is understood. A lot of language change and not much translation.

You can change the ROE, but basically those sorts of decisions will be more dependent upon "The Moral Sense"(I haven't read this book), but in terms of adminstrative law(hard to say what it is) there is some need to translate (principle/policy) nuance to action.

I can easily see why there might be head shaking denunciations of "moral sense". In the context of administrative law or maybe even public sector labor law, the existance of room for "moral sense" undermines the analytic presumptions that structure administration. With or without a union, you have "policy" questions or standardized tests, some sort of objective bright line rule laid out in words, that is supposed to solve everything.

It is clear that "moral sense" is ridiculous, it has to be after all, because if it wasn't the problem could not be solved by new policies. It is in fact the goal of all political scientist to regulate away "moral sense", or to otherwise remove discretion from employees by binding them to the policies of government or the employer.

While no one can figure out administrative law comprehensively, in a great deal of cases it seems to me that an admission of "moral sense" is really an admission of "worker empowerment", (since often in practice "moral sense" is used to expand the scope of employee discretion, and encroaches upon questions considered policy, or otherwise challanges the efficacy of policy by introducing character.) Put in a more favorable way administrative law is about moving away from reliance upon men being angels, it is about redundant steps and procedures to eliminate waste and ensure competence. It is standardization.

Anyone bother to wonder if perhaps Santorum's appeal to the union working class, christians and evangelicals is a function of the moral sense/ethos being replaced by standardization(not that God is dead, but that he is irrelevant to the process) in both the private and public spheres, and that avertion to Romney who is seen as similar to Obama could in fact be rationaly explained by the triumph of the administrative posture?

Let's assume that the political scientists who scoffed at Wilson's "moral sense" had reasons. Lets assume they were bureaucratic reasons. What would you expect to see in a society that completly bureaucratized all questions, leveraging selfishness and an analysis of interests into rules of the game. Wilson is dead, his warnings went unheeded, Tocqueville was right that there was no political question in america that did not become a legal issue, and that legal issues conceived broadly enough fully encompass american life.

Lets assume that in part opposition to SB-5 in Ohio is related to public sector labor law's demand for recognition of "moral sense" (or to an ongoing dispute over what is permisive, mandatory or forbidden) and that this now finds a home in "worker empowerment" resisting employer efforts in both the public and private spheres concerning issues of standardization and bureaucratic control in service to greater efficiency.

RIP Wilson, it is likely that you are entirely irrelevant, and so entirely relevant in terms of what is missed by the system.

This is a sad day. Jim Wilson's passing is a huge loss. No one made social science, such as it is, so intelligible and relevant to political thought. His logical and well ordered mind, his generosity, and his good sense will be sorely missed.

Yes, I always felt that leap of anticipatory pleasure when I saw James Q. Wilson's name on an article. I'll miss his writing.

The WJS has selections from his essays today. Here's one: "Christmas and Christianity," Dec. 24, 2004:

Those who are alarmed by the extent of religious belief in this country have roused themselves to make the so-called wall of separation between church and state both higher and firmer. . . . They would be well advised to let matters alone. We have been a free country even though "In God We Trust" is printed on our dollar bills, even though sessions of Congress begin with a prayer, and even though chaplains paid for by our tax dollars are part of our military forces. Our freedom does not depend on eliminating these acknowledgments of the power of religion; it relies instead on the fact that for many generations we have embraced a secular government operating in a religious culture.

That embrace will be weakened, not strengthened, by silly attacks on religiosity, stimulating the spiritual to question the seriousness of people who profess a concern for civil liberties.

Amen, brother.

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