The gods must have smiled ruefully when they took James Q. Wilson only one day after Andrew Breitbart. Here were two men who personified some of the tensions of contemporary conservatism. Breitbart was a sixties-style activist, an impatient, brawling radical whose antic energy and passion turned him into a rock star for a younger generation of conservatives. It’s said that heart problems may have caused his sudden collapse on the street near his Los Angeles home, but to me it seems possible he just exploded from within.
Jim Wilson, of course, was Breitbart’s opposite, a courtly sort defined by civility and caution in both his personal manner and his work. Every idea was tapped, held up to the light, examined from all sides. Even when pronounced valuable, he held it gently, with a gentleman’s grace. “We don’t know” was one of my favorite Wilsonisms. He used it often: “We don’t know the right number” of people who use guns for self-defense. “Which genes help create which political attitudes? Right now, we don’t know.” “We don’t know how to convert theory into practice.”
In this way he reminded all of us, but particularly policymakers, that science was less a body of settled laws than a disciplined gesture at the unknown. Real science required us to untangle feelings and evidence. Judging from tributes after his death from liberal social scientists who had been his students, in this respect he was heard even in an academy that so often disagreed with him.
Like the great classic social scientists of an earlier age, Wilson used the insights of history, biology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and psychology to plumb his subjects. Yet he was impeccably empirical. His books and articles were a mixture, almost unique today, of broad philosophical insight and scientific rigor. He is best known for his work on policing, as he should be. It’s not too big a stretch to say that he was partly responsible for saving untold numbers of lives in ravaged urban neighborhoods and helped promote the revival of a nearly defeated New York City.
But I studied him most closely for his work on the family. The opening of his second chapter of The Marriage Problem, entitled “Why Do Families Exist?,” is pure Wilson in its clarity and multidisciplinary breadth. “The family is a remarkable and fragile combination of nature and nurture, of social pressures operating within biological imperatives,” he begins. “The central element in human relations, the bond between mother and her child, is the result of powerful natural forces. . . . Each society must devise and enforce the obligations on which the life of the mother and her infant depend.”
Whether about crime, genetics, morality, or marriage, Wilson’s work was always at bottom a meditation on human nature and its reflection in the social order. Some of his early work tackled the environmental and constitutional influences that made men turn to crime. That led him to consider the alternative question: why do most people not commit crimes? “The moral sense” was his answer. This, in turn, took him to a study of the family, for he believed that the moral sense, while innate, also needed careful nurturing.
Wilson’s work provided a wide-ranging but coherent examination of humankind. And we’re all the better for it.