Society and Culture

A tribute to James Q. Wilson

Memorial Church, Harvard University

April 13, 2012

Good afternoon. I’m Arthur Brooks, and I am deeply honored to give a few words of tribute to Jim Wilson. Roberta Wilson has asked me to speak about Jim’s work as a scholar—how it touched the lives and careers of so many people, including my own.

Jim had an extraordinary career. Many of you know him as a professor of political science at Harvard, UCLA, Pepperdine, Boston College, and other universities. He was also affiliated with my own institution, the American Enterprise Institute, since 1975. He was the author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, from the bestselling textbook “American Government” (with John Dilulio) to the enormously influential essay “Broken Windows” (with George Kelling), which literally changed the approach to criminal justice in American cities.

No social scientist had more influence than Jim over American public policy, from topics ranging from deregulation to welfare reform. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, and advised five decades of American presidents—including the most recalcitrant ones. Senator Pat Moynihan once reportedly told Nixon (who was known for his disdain for intellectuals), “Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The President of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.”

His influence on policy and politics was so vast that it inspired columnist George Will to say, “To be a political commentator in James Q. Wilson’s era is to know how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra’s era.”

Jim’s work affected societies and history. But he also changed individual lives, like my own, with his profound generosity and humanity.

I met Jim in 1998. He showed up, unannounced, he appeared at my PhD dissertation defense. He wasn’t on my committee and we had never met. Furthermore, I had written what might be the most boring dissertation of all time, about the demand for symphony orchestra concerts. (Indeed, after observing that it was surprisingly short, one of my own thesis advisors deemed it “a refutation of the axiom that brevity is the soul of wit.”)

After the defense, my wife asked how it went. I told her that the great James Q. Wilson showed up. “Why on earth would he do that?” she asked. It could only be explained by the fact that he was interested in everything. Life for Jim was like a roadside curio shop, full of hidden and unrecognized intellectual treasures. Maybe even some in my dissertation (although I doubt it).

A few years after our first meeting, Jim re-established contact. I was an untenured professor doing research on charitable giving. He emailed to ask a question about my work, saying that he was planning to write a book on philanthropy. With some audacity, I took the opportunity to send the great man an outline of a book that I myself was working on. Within a day, he sent back an email saying, “I enjoyed your outline. Since I don’t need to write my own book now, perhaps you would like me to help with yours.” He carefully reviewed each of the chapters in that book, improving each one immensely, and then wrote the book’s foreword. That book, because of Jim’s generosity, quite literally changed the trajectory of my professional life.

At one point in my academic career, I called Jim for advice about how best to navigate the waters of academia when one is openly politically conservative. “Simple,” he told me lightheartedly, “Be twice as productive and four times as nice as your colleagues.” It was a formula he himself had followed, and a window into the character of the man.

I once asked Jim what he felt was his most important contribution to intellectual life. With no hesitation, he cited his book “The Moral Sense,” published in 1993.

It wasn’t his bestselling title or best-known work. However, he felt it was the closest he ever got with the tools of social science to the essence of meaning. Using the tools of an empirical social scientist and synthesizing the work of hundreds of other scholars in dozens of fields, he established to his own satisfaction—as high a standard as one might ever hope to reach—that man is, at his core, a moral creature. Some may say this is the product of evolutionary biology; others may chalk it up to God or natural law. But whatever the origin, Wilson believed our moral sense was a central fact of humanity and an utter refutation of modern relativism.

One reviewer described “The Moral Sense” as “the most significant reflection on this matter since Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments.’” Book reviews just don’t get better than that. And it was surely true. Many authors have demonstrated that without a healthy moral culture, a democratic capitalist society cannot survive.

But Jim showed—not with vague philosophy but with natural experiments and data analysis—that the moral sense is so much more than just what we need to prosper. It is the rhythm of our human flourishing. Jim understood that the moral sense is the reason freedom and individual responsibility give us the best chance at a meaningful life.

James Q. Wilson gave the world social science with a soul. He was the rare man who combined a giant intellect, a passion for liberty, common sense, a love for America, and a servant’s heart. He was a great and good man who lived a wonderful life, and he made ours better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>