The obituaries for James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist, generally emphasized his “broken windows” theory on how to reduce crime. That’s natural. This strategy, which contributed to the recent reduction in crime rates, was his most tangible legacy.
But broken windows was only a small piece of what Wilson contributed, and he did not consider it the center of his work. The best way to understand the core Wilson is by borrowing the title of one of his essays: “The Rediscovery of Character.”
When Wilson began looking at social policy, at the University of Redlands, the University of Chicago and Harvard, most people did not pay much attention to character. The Marxists looked at material forces. Darwinians at the time treated people as isolated products of competition. Policy makers of right and left thought about how to rearrange economic incentives. “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind,” he once recalled.
Wilson worked within this tradition. But during the 1960s and ’70s, he noticed that the nation’s problems could not be understood by looking at incentives. Schools were expanding, but James Coleman found that the key to education success was the relationships at home and in the neighborhood. Income transfers to the poor increased, but poor neighborhoods did not improve; instead families disintegrated.
The economy boomed and factory jobs opened up, but crime rates skyrocketed. Every generation has an incentive to spend on itself, but none ran up huge deficits until the current one. Some sort of moral norms prevented them.
“At root,” Wilson wrote in 1985 in The Public Interest, “in almost every area of important concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers or voters and public officials.”
When Wilson wrote about character and virtue, he didn’t mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Behave in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent.
He did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated by practicing good manners, by being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day.
Wilson lived in an individualistic age, but he emphasized that character was formed in groups. As he wrote in “The Moral Sense,” his 1993 masterpiece, “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”
Wilson set out to learn how groups created a good order, why that order sometimes frayed. He worked patiently and meticulously. The phrase “we don’t know” rings throughout his writing. He was quick to admit ignorance in the face of knotty social problems.
When Wilson started talking about character, he was surprised that many in the academy regarded him as an archconservative. Why should character talk be conservative? But he accepted the label and responded gracefully. Some conservatives in the academy respond to their isolation by becoming combative and extreme. Wilson’s rule was that conservatives should respond by being twice as productive and four times as nice.
In “The Moral Sense,” he brilliantly investigated the virtuous sentiments we are born with and how they are cultivated by habit. Wilson’s broken windows theory was promoted in an essay with George Kelling called “Character and Community.” Wilson and Kelling didn’t think of crime primarily as an individual choice. They saw it as something that emerged from the social psychology of a community. When neighborhoods feel disorganized and scary, crime increases.
Over the years, Wilson argued that American communities responded to the stresses of industrialization by fortifying self-control. Thanks to the temperance movement, for example, adult per-capita alcohol consumption fell from 7.1 gallons a year to 1.8 gallons a year between 1830 and 1850.
But America responded to the stresses of the information economy by reducing the communal buttresses to self-control, with unfortunate results. Occasionally, when there was sufficient evidence, Wilson recommended policies that might reverse this slide. In one 1998 Public Interest essay, he promoted ideas to strengthen the family: create publicly supported, privately operated group homes for teenage mothers; increase adoption; investigate ways to increase preschool programs; create a G.I. Bill for young mothers — if you take care of your kid now, the government will pay for training later; create a religious United Way fund to increase the role of religion in American society.
Wilson was not a philosopher. He was a social scientist. He just understood that people are moral judgers and moral actors, and he reintegrated the vocabulary of character into discussions of everyday life.