A Life in the Public Interest

James Q. Wilson, "A Life in the Public Interest" The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2009.


The view that we know less than we thought we knew about how to change the human condition came, in time, to be called neoconservatism. Many of the writers, myself included, disliked the term because we did not think we were conservative, neo or paleo. (I voted for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and worked in the latter’s presidential campaign.) It would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics; that is, people who thought it was hard, though not impossible, to make useful and important changes in public policy.

Whatever the authors were called, their best essays reflected one general view: Let us use social science to analyze an existing policy to see if it works at a reasonable cost. This meant that these writings were backward looking in a world when liberals were relentlessly forward looking. If you look carefully at what has been done rather than announce boldly what ought to be done, you will be called, I suppose, a conservative. We were lucky, I imagine, not to be called reactionaries.

The Wall Street Journal