Social science with a soul
Life for James Q. Wilson was like a roadside curio shop, full of hidden and unrecognized intellectual treasures

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  • "James Q. Wilson gave us social science with a soul" - @ArthurBrooks

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  • The moral sense is the reason freedom and individual responsibility give us the best chance at a meaningful life

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  • Life for Jim Wilson was like a roadside curio shop, full of hidden and unrecognized intellectual treasures

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This week, America lost the most influential social scientist of the past 100 years. James Q. Wilson died at the age of 80.

Wilson had an extraordinary career. He taught political science for many years at Harvard, UCLA and other universities, and he was affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute since 1976, serving as the chairman of AEI's Council of Academic Advisors until his passing. He was the author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, from the best-selling textbook "American Government" (with John Dilulio) to the enormously influential essay "Broken Windows" in the Atlantic (with George Kelling), which changed the approach to criminal justice in many American cities.

Arguably, no social scientist had more influence over American public policy, on 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. Pat Moynihan once reportedly told Richard 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 quip, “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.”

I met Jim Wilson in 1998 when, unannounced, he appeared at my Ph.D. dissertation defense. I had written what could surely compete for the most tiresome dissertation of all time. (Indeed, after observing that it was surprisingly short, one of my thesis advisers deemed it “a refutation of the axiom that brevity is the soul of wit.”) Why the famed social scientist James Q. Wilson would come to hear my presentation on demand strategies for symphony orchestras can only be explained by the fact that he was interested in everything. Life for Wilson was like a roadside curio shop, full of hidden and unrecognized intellectual treasures.

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 temerity, I sent 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. His generosity quite literally changed the trajectory of my professional life, and began a fruitful collaboration and friendship.

At one point in my academic career, I called Jim for advice about how best to navigate the waters of liberal academia when one is openly 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.

I once asked Wilson what he felt was his most important contribution to intellectual life. He cited his book “The Moral Sense,” published in 1993. It was not his best-selling 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.’” This is surely true. Many authors over the decades have demonstrated the self-evident truth that without a healthy moral culture, a democratic capitalist society cannot survive. But Wilson 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. Wilson understood that the moral sense is what statist regimes crowd out with technocratic socialism—and why they ultimately deliver unhappiness. The moral sense is the reason freedom and individual responsibility give us the best chance at a meaningful life.

James Q. Wilson gave us social science with a soul.

Mr. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute.

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