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Public Interest Hero 

Remembering political science legend James Q. Wilson.

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Arguably the most read and admired political scientist of his generation, James Q. Wilson died on March 2 at the age of 80, of complications from leukemia. After 26 years at Harvard, in 1987 he returned home to Los Angeles — first UCLA and then Pepperdine. Two years ago, he retraced his steps back to Boston, this time at Boston College.

Conservatives lay claim to Wilson, but he voted for Kennedy, Johnson and Humphrey. He once told me that he was conservative only by academic standards. Many of his writings begin with a trenchant critique of both the right and the left.

He was a lifetime intellectual soulmate of his mentor, then colleague, Edward Banfield. During the ’60s, Banfield and Wilson came on the scene with their critiques of reform government, the council-manager in particular, which was all the rage following World War II. This was the era of expertise, apolitical city governance, and the folks Wilson would come to term “amateur democrats.” The two scholars had the temerity to reconsider the claims being made.

They even dared to argue that the older political machines were in some ways more effective and more democratic.

My active support for the strong mayor form of government in Spokane was informed by their arguments. They showed me why the council-manager form of government usually works OK in homogenous communities, supported by healthy political economies, but in other cities — less homogenous, poorer — not so much.

Our council-manager form of government, based as it was on the apolitical business model, repressed political conflict, relied on patterns of influence that always favored the bureaucrats (self-regarded “experts” often when they actually weren’t), and business interests that spoke the same language. Left out were the forgotten social classes, all the neighborhoods, the public interest and, paradoxically, even the downtown, because nonpartisan, apolitical governance always tends to shift influence to the suburbs.

Unlike many academics who endlessly plumb their dissertations, Wilson would say what he could on a topic and then just move on — from cities to crime to bureaucracy to moral philosophy.

But if he had an abiding interest, it had to be complex organizations. They fascinated him. Consider this, from the preface to his book Bureaucracy: “What follows is not very theoretical, neither is it very practical. If you read this book, you will not learn very much — if anything — about how to run a government agency. Why read it then? Only because you are interested, and might want to know a little bit more about why our government works the way it does.”

He saw the little things that had major implications. He opens Bureaucracy with a chapter titled “Armies, Prisons and Schools,” the point being that we need to understand that there is commonality among all complex organizations, even those seemingly disparate ones.

Food for thought: Mayor David Condon is committed to reforming the police department. Two Wilson books would raise his chances for success: The Varieties of Police Behavior and Thinking About Crime. These books pose questions and draw distinctions that are seldom even considered, let alone sorted through. Consider his seemingly benign observation that policing organizations are unique among complex organizations in that more discretion is unavoidably exercised on the street than at headquarters. Much flows from this insight. Then there is his ‘Broken Window Theory.”

As the eulogies poured in over these past two weeks, almost every writer mentioned this short essay, in which Wilson argued that to reduce crime in cities you must not tolerate evidence of abandonment. If the middle class feels safe on the streets, they will take over the city streets and the bad guys will leave. Signs of abandonment are toxic. This theory redefined how policing was done in New York City, with notable results.

Two decades later, critics point out that success has come at a social cost — that this form of policing, which relies on even more discretion, brought with it higher rates of police harassment.

But Wilson, not surprisingly, had thought about this risk long before his critics did. How so? Because he lived by the law of “unintended consequences,” an idea he attributed to Irving Kristol. He always thought about unintended consequences. And, yes, harassment would be a logical unintended consequence of “watchmanstyle” policing. He had written about this in Varieties of Police Behavior, a decade before “Broken Windows” was published. Wilson, of course, would then ask the next questions. What do we do about it? What are the tradeoffs?

James Q will be more than missed. He leaves a big hole in the study of politics and government.

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