James Q. Wilson, a man of immeasurable influence

by Ryan Streeter on March 5, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

I’m posting a bit infrequently these days because I’m happily dug in amidst the coastal cliffs and woods of Big Sur, California with my family. But I wanted to emerge briefly to comment on the death of James Q. Wilson. Both he and Andrew Breitbart have passed away since I arrived in the Golden State, and though I’ve taken a needed break from the news while enjoying the beauty of their home state, I’ve tracked with a good bit of the tributes both have received.

Wilson’s book, The Moral Sense, came out just as I was embarking on my graduate studies in the 90s. I ended up writing my Ph.D. dissertation at Emory University on David Hume’s moral, political, and economic essays as a way to understand the political relevance of Scottish moral sentiment theory. I had grown fascinated with how Adam Smith and David Hume seemed to get so much right about moral reality and how it relates to political society. But it was Wilson’s book that showed me just how right those Scottish moral philosophers were. He opened my eyes to the great body of social science research that affirmed what those philosophers had so carefully theorized in damp, blustery 18th century Scotland.

I became a Wilson junkie and would stop whatever I was doing to read something new of his when it would come out, and of course I went back and started digging into his past work. I worked for Steve Goldsmith in Indianapolis while finishing my dissertation, and Wilson was a household name in our office – as he was in many mayors’ offices in those days. It’s really hard to quantify his influence.

I’ve pulled in a few of the thoughtful tributes to Wilson I’ve enjoyed reading the past few days:

Not long before Wilson’s death, Charles Murray spoke at an AEI event in honor of him. Murray highlights the aspect of Wilson’s talent that has always impressed me:  “It was the task of taking the welter of information that was being produced by those tools and drawing from that a mosaic which presented some things that were both useful and true about what was going on. It was made especially hard because these articles that were being produced, as any of you who have ever tried to read them know, are often torturously arcane. They are written by scholars who often have tunnel vision about their own findings. It was Jim who was in the vanguard of understanding how you weave that mosaic together.”

Pete Wehner reminds us that there was more to Wilson than the strong, cogent analyses of issues for which he is so well-known. Pete looks at Wilson’s consistent patriotism – patriotism of the deeper sort: “He was a man who deeply loved his country. In reading his books and essays over the years, it seemed to me that what animated him most of all was a commitment to citizenship, virtue, and the moral good. He believed in our capacity to improve, even if imperfectly, the human condition.”

Michael Barone reminds us that Wilson was a middle class guy with middle class values who got out in front of some of the biggest issues of the day, from how to understand crime to how political elites think to how morality works. Michael summarizes Wilson as a “happy American life — and one in which skeptical scholarship was joined to a love of country that leaves us with much to be grateful for.”

Roger Kimball reproduces a review he wrote of the Moral Sense, which Wilson considered his best book, when it appeared in 1993. Kimball’s review is a fine piece of writing itself. He highlights the great contribution Wilson made to moral psychology this way: “Mr. Wilson seeks to provide a corrective by introducing an invigorating dose of common sense into the discussion. His first message is that ‘we need not retreat’ in the face of cultural relativism. He points out that even if examples of moral confusion abound, most of us continue to experience the world as a field of moral choices. Even if ‘some of us have tried to talk ourselves out of it,’ the palpable reality of our moral sense nevertheless continues to assert itself in daily life.”

Yuval Levin writes a cheerful personal account of what it was like to interact with Wilson on National Affairs, which Yuval edits and on whose editorial board Wilson sat:  “He would call me after pretty much each issue with some comment or other—he especially got a kick out of seeing good work by young academics he hadn’t heard of before (he would always try to guess which of his friends had been their teachers, often correctly).”