James Q. Wilson

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James Q. Wilson
James Quinn Wilson

(1931-05-27)May 27, 1931
DiedMarch 2, 2012(2012-03-02) (aged 80)
Alma mater
Known forBroken windows theory
Scientific career
InfluencedArthur C. Brooks, George F. Will, Rudy Giuliani, William Bratton[1]

James Quinn Wilson (May 27, 1931 – March 2, 2012) was an American political scientist and an authority on public administration. Most of his career was spent as a professor at UCLA and Harvard University. He was the chairman of the Council of Academic Advisors of the American Enterprise Institute, member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1985–1990), and the President's Council on Bioethics. He was Director of Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard-MIT.

He was the former president of the American Political Science Association and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and Human Rights Foundation. He also was a co-author of a leading university textbook, American Government, and wrote many scholarly books and articles, and op-ed essays. He gained national attention for a 1982 article introducing the broken windows theory in The Atlantic. In 2003, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President George W. Bush.


He completed his B.A. at the University of Redlands in 1952, and he was its national collegiate debate champion in 1951 and 1952. He completed an M.A. (1957) and a Ph.D. (1959) in political science at the University of Chicago. From 1961 to 1987, he was the Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University.

His 1975 book Thinking About Crime put forward a novel theory of incapacitation as the most effective explanation for the reduction in crime rates observed where longer prison sentences were the norm. Criminals might not be deterred by the threat of longer sentences, but repeat offenders would be prevented from further offending, simply because they would be in jail rather than out on the street.[2]

Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the broken windows theory in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. In an article titled "Broken Windows", they argued that the symptoms of low-level crime and disorder (e.g. a broken window) create an environment that encourages more crimes, including serious ones.[3]

From 1987 to 1997, he was the James Collins Professor of Management and Public Policy at the UCLA Anderson School of Management at UCLA. From 1998 to 2009, he was the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.[4][5]

Wilson authored the university text American Government, and coauthored later editions with John J. DiIulio, Jr. The text has been widely sold, though its use became controversial in later years after universities alleged it to have inaccuracies and "right-wing bias".[6][7]

Wilson was a former chairman of the White House Task Force on Crime (1966), of the National Advisory Commission on Drug Abuse Prevention (1972–1973) and a member of the Attorney General's Task Force on Violent Crime (1981), the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1985–1990), and the President's Council on Bioethics. He was a former president of the American Political Science Association. He served on the board of directors for the New England Electric System (now National Grid USA), Protection One, RAND, and State Farm Mutual Insurance.

He was the chairman of the Council of Academic Advisors of the American Enterprise Institute. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the International Council of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.

Political views[edit]

Although as a young professor he "voted for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and worked in the last's presidential campaign,"[8] Wilson was later recognized as a leading conservative scholar, as indicated by his advisory position to the American Enterprise Institute.

Wilson was a staunch advocate for perseverance in the War on Drugs:

Even now, when the dangers of drug use are well understood, many educated people still discuss the drug problem in almost every way except the right way. They talk about the "costs" of drug use and the "socioeconomic factors" that shape that use. They rarely speak plainly—drug use is wrong because it's immoral and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul.[9]

Wilson also pioneered the idea that public administration was increasingly replete with political calculations and concerns:

This is because our constitutional structure and our traditions afford individuals manifold opportunities not only to bring their special interests to the attention of public officials but also — and this the important thing — to compel officials to bargain and to make compromises. The nature of the governmental system gives private interests such good opportunities to participate in the making of public decisions that there is virtually no sphere of 'administration' apart from politics.[10]

Wilson studied conflict between "amateur" and "professional" participants in politics, especially in the Democratic Party in the 1960s. He argued that professional politicians, parties, political machines and informal power structures were essential to the functioning of the government and its formal power structures. In 1962, he wrote that "If legal power is badly fragmented among many independent elective officials and widely decentralized among many levels of government, the need for informal methods of assembling power becomes great."[11]


Wilson was described as being courteous and gentle in demeanor but also intellectually tough and firm with his opinions. As a former student of Wilson, former American Enterprise Institute President Christopher DeMuth said, "He was sociable, amiable, he loved the Red Sox. He kept up on the NCAA brackets. He knew all about all of those things. He was interested in music and cooking and food, he was very companionable. But... he was intellectually tough as nails and he would be very agreeable in explaining to you that your intuitions about something actually weren't correct."[12]


Wilson died in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 2, 2012, from complications with leukemia.[13]



  • American Politics, Then and Now (2010)
  • American Government, 12th ed. (2010, with John J. DiIulio, Jr.)
  • Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation (2008, ed. with Peter Schuck)
  • The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Damages Families (2002)
  • Moral Judgment (1997)
  • The Moral Sense (1993)
  • On Character: Essays by James Q. Wilson (1991)
  • Bureaucracy (1989) – "his masterwork"[14]
  • Crime and Human Nature (1985, with Richard Herrnstein)
  • Watching Fishes: Life and Behavior on Coral Reefs (1985, with Roberta Wilson)
  • The Politics of Regulation (1980)
  • The Investigators (1978)
  • Thinking About Crime (1975)
  • Political Organizations (1973)
  • Varieties of Police Behavior (1968)
  • City Politics (1963, with Edward C. Banfield)
  • The Amateur Democrat (1962)
  • Negro Politics (1960)



  1. ^ "George Will on the Conservative Sensibility".
  2. ^ John D. Lofton Jr. (April 14, 1975). "The case for jailing crooks". The Telegraph-Herald. p. 4.
  3. ^ James Q. Wilson & George L. Kelling. "BROKEN WINDOWS: The police and neighborhood safety" (PDF). Retrieved September 3, 2007. (HTML version)
  4. ^ "James Q. Wilson, Ph.D. (in memoriam)", pepperdine.edu.
  5. ^ "Center Announces James Q. Wilson as First Clough Senior Fellow" (PDF). The Clough Center Report. The Gloria L. and Charles I. Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, Boston College Department of Political Science. Fall 2009. p. 1. Retrieved September 25, 2010.
  6. ^ Associated Press (April 8, 2008). "Student sees political bias in high school text: publisher now says it will review book, as will college board". MSNBC. Retrieved January 23, 2009.
  7. ^ "CFI Textbook Critique" (PDF). The Center for Inquiry. April 9, 2008. Retrieved May 4, 2008.
  8. ^ Wilson, James Q. (September 21, 2009). "A Life in the Public Interest". The Wall Street Journal.
  9. ^ Quoted in William J. Bennett, Body Count (New York: 1996), pp. 140–141
  10. ^ "An Introduction to the Work of James Q. Wilson", contemporarythinkers.org.
  11. ^ James Q. Wilson, The Amateur Democrat: Club Politics in Three Cities (University of Chicago Press, 1962); reprinted with a new preface in 1966.
  12. ^ "Christopher Demuth transcript: IV) James Q. Wilson, conversationswithbillkristol.org, taped March 19, 2014.
  13. ^ Woo, Elaine (March 3, 2012). "James Q. Wilson dies at 80; pioneer in 'broken windows' approach to improve policing". The Los Angeles Times.
  14. ^ "James Q. Wilson". The Economist. March 10, 2012. Retrieved August 30, 2012.

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