Society and Culture

A toast to James Q. Wilson by Charles Murray

Charles Murray gave the following remarks at a Dec. 7, 2011, American Enterprise Institute dinner honoring the life and work of James Q. Wilson.

Back in 1975, I came across an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Lock ‘em up and other thoughts on crime.” I loved it even before I read a word. What a title, at a time when crime was soaring but academicians were still saying prison was barbaric and counterproductive. I loved the article even more after I read it. The mastery of the literature, the calm, wry voice of the author, the effortless prose. James Q. Wilson instantly became my hero.

Then, four or five years later, I published an obscure technical report about incarceration of chronic delinquents. Some time thereafter I got a phone call. It was from Professor Wilson. He was going to be in Washington, where I worked at a fine but obscure research organization. Jim Wilson wanted to have lunch with me. It was like being a parish priest in some remote village in Galway and getting a call from the Pope: “I’m in the neighborhood, let’s have a drink.” So we had lunch, at which James Q. Wilson treated me, a young and completely unknown researcher, as a full colleague, quizzing me about my work as if I had been Harvey Mansfield lunching with him at the Harvard Faculty Club. It was an immensely gratifying experience, but that’s not why I tell the story. Rather, that incident says so much both about Jim Wilson the person, and Jim Wilson the scholar. Believe me, anyone who had read my technical report knew everything there was to know about his chosen topic.

When Jim began his career at the beginning of the 1960s, public policy analysis as a systematic discipline was in its infancy. The tools we now take for granted were just being pieced together. Jim was not a quantitative specialist himself. Rather, Jim was at the vanguard of those who learned how to consume the products generated by the new tools. Out of the welter of journal articles, often tortuously arcane in their presentation, usually written by scholars who had tunnel vision about the meaning of their own findings, how does one piece together a mosaic that tells a balanced, meaningful story about the forest, not the trees? It is not something that people knew how to do. Social scientists had never been asked to deal with anything like the kinds of evidence that were being churned out by the new quantitative tools. Jim’s 1975 book, Thinking about Crime, was a seminal example of how to do it. In the years that followed, he did it again with books like The Moral Sense, even as he continued to produce a stream of important books in the traditional political science genre. And he did it showing dismayingly little sweat. Dick Herrnstein, our mutual and beloved friend, once told me that Jim did his writing on legal pads, and that he hardly ever crossed anything out. I choose not to believe that story. For those of us who don’t have anything readable until the fifth draft, it is too painful.

In short, James Q. Wilson taught us how to do policy analysis that is both true and useful. I, and I suspect many of my AEI colleagues, do not think of Jim as the Medal of Freedom winner or the adviser to presidents. He is the prototype and the exemplar for what we do. Please join me in a toast to James Q. Wilson, the master craftsman of our trade.

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