James Q. Wilson’s influence on Indianapolis, via Steve Goldsmith

by Ryan Streeter on March 16, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

My latest Indianapolis StarĀ column is below, on James Q. Wilson and Indianapolis. As I wrote shortly after Wilson’s death earlier this month, he had a considerable influence on me and my work. I tried to read every tribute written about him after he passed away, and while I enjoyed most of them, I thought one thing that was missing was the voice of an elected official who had actively utilized Wilson’s thought in his or her own governing agenda.

So I called up Steve Goldsmith, former Indianapolis mayor and a former boss of mine, and asked him a few questions about his relationship with Wilson. This column is the result:

James Q. Wilson, one of our era’s finest social scientists, passed away on March 2 at 80. He was a true “public intellectual” in the respectable sense of the term.

Most academics routinely hope to influence events, and most routinely fail to do so. Wilson positively affected policymaking more than any academic of the past half-century and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the nation. His influence, though, could be felt at the community level across America, including in Indianapolis.

Wilson is best remembered for the “broken windows theory” he pioneered with George Kelling, which prompted cities — Rudy Giuliani’s New York as the best-known example — to institute new policing strategies that dramatically reduced crime.

Wilson’s contribution was much deeper than this, however, as many have noted since his death.

Columnist George Will, who honors Wilson as “elegant in bearing, voracious for learning, eloquent in advocacy and amiable in disputation,” highlights Wilson’s perception that by turning virtually every human difficulty into a public policy challenge, politicians actually make it harder to take decisive action to fix problems because of the institutions they create.

David Brooks notes that Wilson’s primary contribution was how he showed that the basics of character — our ability to cooperate, delay gratification, work hard, treat each other decently — are intertwined with most major public policy problems we face.

While reading various tributes to Wilson, my thoughts drifted toward a more local, grittier kind of homage. I recalled that Steve Goldsmith, while serving as mayor of Indianapolis in the 1990s, often referred to Wilson’s work. He also cited Wilson in each of his four books. So I asked our former mayor last week about the role Wilson played in the Goldsmith era. (Full disclosure: I served as a policy aide in Goldsmith’s administration).

“When I was elected prosecutor in 1978,” Goldsmith remembers, “the first book I read, which a friend gave me, was Wilson’s ‘Thinking About Crime.’ I still have it — underlined and all marked up. It had a considerable effect on me.”

“When it came to understanding the intersection of civil society and government,” Goldsmith said, “there simply was no intellectual equal to Wilson. His work dramatically affected what we did in Indianapolis.”

You can find Wilson’s fingerprints on the most consequential initiatives and reforms Goldsmith pioneered.

Goldsmith openly credits Wilson and his colleagues as the primary inspiration for Indianapolis’s crime-fighting strategy. After considering Wilson’s thesis that crime gravitates toward neighborhoods that don’t address small infractions, Goldsmith wrote in 1997, “we decided to eliminate our ‘broken windows’ as quickly as possible.”

The Indianapolis community policing experience was built on a stronger partnership between the police and neighborhoods than in most other cities, reflecting the Wilsonian insight that civil society is essential to combating social ills. Indianapolis became a model that other cities studied.

The Wilsonian insight extended to the city’s partnership with faith-based and community organizations for which Indianapolis also became a national model. “Wilson was writing about the nature of civil society, so he and I spoke several times in those days about how partnering with faith-based and other values-based groups could be help improve public services and the overall quality of life in Indianapolis,” Goldsmith said.

Wilson’s “Political Organizations” and “Bureaucracy,” widely considered two of the best books on how government works, found that public agencies tend to resist innovation and serve interests other than the objectives you read in their mission statements. Goldsmith’s early competitive outsourcing initiatives, which disrupted business as usual at City Hall, were based on ideas and sources other than just Wilson’s, but Wilson’s way of thinking about innovation can be found at the heart of what the city was doing. These efforts, as is well known, cast a national spotlight on Indianapolis.

In politics as in life, ideas have consequences — some for good, others for bad. Fortunately, every now and then, good ideas such as Wilson’s take root and make life better for all of us.