Saturday, March 03, 2012

James Q.Wilson: More than Broken Windows

It was clear-eyed of the New York Times to put the obit of James Q.Wilson on the front page, except that it wasn't really an obit; it was a story about "fixing broken windows," designed to give New Yorkers one more chance to look and try to make sense out of the tumultuous Lindsey/Beame/Dinkins/Giuliani years (and for some, a chance to congratulate themselves once again that they picked up a West Side apartment when they were going for $35,000).

"Fixing broken windows" is a remarkable story, and Wilson deserves s lot of credit for propogating this once-innovative mode of policing.  But Wilson did a lot more: his masterpiece is probably his one-volume study, Bureaucracy, probably the best introduction to organizational behavior outside of the BBC's Yes, Minister.  Trace back from that to City Politics, his early collaboration with his friend and mentor Ed Banfield and you find an intellect that was fertile and path-breaking from the very beginning.

Everybody is busy describing Wilson as a "conservative," and he certainly would have accepted the characterization but--particularly considering how much the term has been vulgarized and travestied in recent decades--I suspect it doesn't really catch the flavor.   The thing about Wilson is the sheer granularity of his work: his curiosity about, and concern for, ordinary people and how they go about making sense of ordinary lives.  It is, indeed, a "conservative" stance to the extent that it respects good order and stability and distrusts grand solutions and grand theory.  But it was a compassionate conservativism in a way that more ambitious political uses of the term never captured.  Wilson was extraordinarily open to experience and remarkably free of received stereotypes.  Social science looks almost unimaginably different today from what it looked like when he started his work. It is a career for which he had--and his loved ones have--every right to be proud.   

Suggestion: in lieu of the Times piece, go take a look at this far more imaginative appreciation by one of his intellectual legatees.


Ken Houghton said...

Just wondering why you ignore the long, incredibly corrupt administration between Beame and Dinkins. (Incredibly used advisedly; parallels between Eddie G. and Reagan abound, yet no one suggests the former was a figurehead.)

Buce said...

oh that guy. You know, not having lived in NYC I totally forgot about him. I did bump into him once coming out of Japonica on University Place. I had thought he was short; imagine that.

[He always reminded me a bit of the talking head in Monty Python's Holy Grail who says "I'll bite your legs off!"

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

The only books I have read that compare to Wilson's "Bureaucracy" are Machiavelli's "The Prince" and Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France".

He played the game so well and so cleanly that I don't care that he played for the wrong team.

Buce said...

Scrooge--I would want to add de Tocqueville, L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution. But the conservatives do get a lot of the good lines, don't they?