An Introduction to the Work of James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson taught political science for fifty years at the University of Chicago, Harvard, UCLA, Pepperdine, and Boston College. He was among the most respected and influential students of politics of the second half of the twentieth century. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the government’s highest civilian award, and virtually every important honor the American Political Science Association can bestow. He also served on a wide array of government commissions.

Wilson wrote (or co-wrote) sixteen books on a variety of issues in American politics and he edited (or co-edited) several more. He co-authored one of the most widely used textbooks on American politics. He published hundreds of essays in an array of magazines and journals. His work can be usefully broken down into six areas: (1) urban politics and parties, (2) political organizations and incentives, (3) policing and crime, (4) bureaucracy, (5) character and culture, and (6) the post-9/11 world.

Note: This introduction is adapted from R. Shep Melnick, “Political Science as a Vocation: An Appreciation of the Life and Work of James Q. Wilson,” The Forum, 2012.

Urban Politics and Parties

Wilson’s earliest work was concerned with the problems facing America’s cities in the 1950s and 1960s. In Negro Politics (1960), The Amateur Democrat (1962), and City Politics (1963, written with Edward C. Banfield), Wilson described how city government was changing in the wake of sustained attacks on political machines and the increasing influence of African-American leaders.

The Amateur Democrat, ostensibly a study of club politics in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, was more accurately “a study of a certain political mentality,” one that “has become more pervasive in American politics.” Wilson distinguished between the ethos of the amateur and the professional. The amateur spirit is “the belief that the proper motive for political action is a concern for the ends of politics, that participation in the management of the affairs of the party ought to be widespread and in accord with strictly democratic procedures, and that party leaders and elective officials ought to be directly responsive to the substantive goals of party activists.” This ethos condemned not just the practices of machine politicians but also the political style of many recent immigrants, who viewed politics in more personal and localistic terms. These amateurs were likely to become more enamored with the prerogatives of power as they climbed the political ladder, but they were powerfully constrained by the organizations they had created and the political mentality they had both internalized and propagated. Wilson recognized that the amateur spirit was the wave of the future and would lead to “a frontal assault on the very foundation of the old political system which requires a radical redistribution of power in the community.”

Banfield and Wilson’s City Politics arose from their observation—at the time, against the grain of much work in public administration—that urban government in American was permeated with politics. “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.” One consequence is that the major obstacle to “getting things done” in urban government is not lack of information or defective organizational arrangements, but rather that people have different interests and opinions about what should be done. “To the extent that social evils like crime, racial hatred, and poverty are problems susceptible to solution, the obstacles in the way of their solution are mostly political.”

Wilson’s work during this period would introduce a variety of themes that he would return to throughout his career: the under-appreciated advantages of political machines; the contrasting world-views of those who work within the machines and those who attack them; the importance of understanding the incentives that lead people to engage in political activity and to create and sustain political organizations; the relationship between the structure of government on the one hand and the nature of informal groups and political styles on the other; and a determination to move beyond the question “Who Governs?” to an examination of a question even more important to most citizens, “To What End?”

Read More: Urban Politics

Political Organizations and Incentives

One outgrowth of Wilson’s work on machines, amateur clubs, and civil rights organizations was a conceptual scheme he developed with Peter B. Clark in 1961. Clark and Wilson distinguished among various incentives faced by groups and explained that the nature of these incentives would shape the goals and strategies of those groups. Wilson more fully developed these ideas in Political Organizations (1973). The book begins with a discussion of the famous free-rider/collective-action problem. Wilson observes that, contrary to the predictions of economists, we are surrounded by voluntary organizations of all sorts. Wilson noted that actual people join associations not just in response to “selective material incentives,” but because they value “solidary incentives” — the social status and camaraderie that comes with group membership — and “purposive incentives” — the sense of efficacy and achievement that comes from committing to a goal of high importance. The virtue of Wilson’s scheme is not just that it explains why so many voluntary associations exist, but that it shows how these incentives shape their strategies.

The final chapter of Political Organizations introduced Wilson’s “Four Types of Politics” schema that has proved to be enormously influential in the study of American politics. Wilson categorizes policy areas according to whether the costs and benefits of governmental action are perceived to be narrowly concentrated or broadly dispersed. The schema forces us to think systematically about when organized interests are likely to dominate and under what conditions appeals to formerly “inattentive publics” are likely to be successful. Wilson’s schema is also a useful counterweight to the cynical assumption that “special interests” always prevail, and helps us to understand what Wilson called entrepreneurial politics, which proved to be an unexpectedly powerful force in American politics in the years between 1966 and 1994.

Read More: Political Organizations

Policing and Crime

James Q. Wilson may be best known for his wide-ranging writings on the causes and consequences of crime. In the mid-1960s, Wilson’s interest in urban politics led him to study police departments, which, in turn, led to a life-long interest in the causes and prevention of crime. During this period, he published five books: Varieties of Police Behavior (1968), two editions of Thinking About Crime (1975 and 1983), The Investigators (1978), and Crime and Human Nature (1985, with the psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein).

In Varieties of Police Behavior, Wilson sought to understand the nature of police work by starting at the bottom of the chain of command (rather than at the top) with the cop-on-the-beat. What he learned was that the “patrolman’s role is defined more by his responsibility for maintaining order than by his responsibility for enforcing the law.” Patrolmen do not enforce clear rules; they use the substantial discretion at their disposal to “handle the situation.” The difficulty of their job is “exacerbated by the fact that the patrolman’s discretion is exercised in an emotional, apprehensive, and perhaps hostile environment.” That means that they must make quick judgments about people’s intentions and dangerousness on the basis of very limited information. These “situational imperatives” make hierarchical control extraordinarily difficult. Thus, cops on the beat expect their managers to support them. But their managers have very little control over the ways that discretion is used — or abused — at the street level. And they cannot simply ignore citizen complaints about official misconduct. There is no obvious solution to this problem. Police departments are coping organizations, in which internal controls will always be weak or non-existent.

Wilson described the various styles — watchman, legalistic, and service — that police departments developed to cope with this problem. One important way the styles differ is the emphasis they place on law enforcement rather than on order maintenance. Wilson observed that cities run by professional managers or with a strong “good government” tradition tended to favor the former; cities run by elected politicians tended to favor the latter. Here, once again, are the consequences of the amateur-professional divide. And here, once again, Wilson suspected that the amateurs, with their inordinate faith in impersonal rules, had gotten things wrong.

In the years after Varieties of Police Behavior was published, Wilson was appointed to several important task forces on crime and devoted more of his scholarly attention to crime control. Thinking About Crime was an effort to summarize what was known about the causes and consequences of crime and became famous for its relentless criticism of criminologists and their preoccupation with the “root causes” of crime. The central argument of the book was that criminal activity was largely rational. Criminals are not “radically different from ordinary people.” Like most people, they pay attention “to the costs and rewards of their activities.” If the perceived consequences of criminal activity are severe, the less likely they will be to commit crimes. Wilson argued that the role of government in this regard was fairly limited. But what it could do is to make sure that the penalties for engaging in criminal behavior were more certain and more immediate.

In Crime and Human Nature, Wilson, writing with Richard Herrnstein, turned his attention from “current issues in crime control and toward the causes of crime.” His collaboration with Herrnstein stimulated Wilson’s interest in both the psychology of the individual and with the family as a site of moral education. Wilson and Herrnstein noted that although “political science and psychology had arisen out of a common interest in understanding human nature and for centuries had sought to answer many of the same questions,” in recent decades they had “drawn apart.” Psychology has important insights into the formation of preferences, a subject about which economics has little to say. Political science, in turn, has much to teach psychology about the institutions that often shape individuals preferences and their sense of fairness. One cannot hope to understand crime without understanding the character of those who commit it, especially their inability to control their impulses or to engage in long-term thinking. And while hereditary factors play a role, far more important is the training one receives in the family. Yet it takes more than a family to control some of the more unruly forces contained in human nature: “Society, by the institutions it designs and the values it sustains, affects the extent to which families and communities are able and willing to lengthen the time horizon, inculcate a conscience, and instill a concern for others among the young in ways that make an orderly society possible.” Wilson would increasingly make arguments about crime policy that were based on an understanding of human character, human socialization, and, ultimately, human nature itself.

Read More: Police, Crime


Wilson’s systematic study of public administration began with Varieties of Police Behavior and reached its culmination in Bureaucracy: What Agencies Do and Why They Do It (1989). Bureaucracy revolutionized the teaching of public administration in American universities, and is thought by many to be Wilson’s most important work. It provides a framework for deciding where to start, what to look for, and what variations to expect in the study of government agencies. Start with the operators — those in the bottom who do the work that justifies the agency’s existence – Wilson tells us, and try to understand the nature of their tasks. Tasks are shaped by many factors—peer expectations, prior training, situational imperatives, ideology, incentives, interest-group pressure, and organizational culture. According to Wilson, these tasks are “the most enduring, hard-to-change element of the situation; administrative procedures must adapt to tasks, not the other way around.” They are what determine in the end “what government agencies do and why they do it.” Nearly as important is the organization’s culture. Wilson explained that effective, autonomous agencies almost always have a strong sense of mission, that is, a “culture that is widely shared and warmly endorsed by operators and managers alike.” This makes them easy to run but enormously difficult to change.

Wilson was not interested in discovering “iron laws” of bureaucracy as much as in understanding how and why government agencies differ. How well managers can control what happens at the bottom depends on the nature of the organization’s critical tasks, especially how easy it is to observe the behavior of operators and to measure the outcomes of what they do. This leads to different management styles in production, craft, procedural, and coping agencies. Moreover, agency leaders must come to terms with the fact that most government agencies cannot be “run like a business.” They cannot retain earnings, set their own goals, or allocate resources to fit their preferences. “As a result, government management tends to be driven by the constraints on the organization, not the tasks of the organization.” Responding to the recurring complaint that political executives spend almost all their time courting constituencies rather than doing their job of running the agency, Wilson says, “No. The real work of the government executive is to curry favor and placate critics.”

Just as importantly, American public bureaucracies differ from those of other western nations, because they must report to so many masters with conflicting agendas. Policymaking in the U.S., he argues, is a barroom brawl: “Anybody can join in, the combatants fight all comers and sometimes change sides, no referee is in charge, and the fight lasts not for a fixed number of rounds but indefinitely or until everyone drops from exhaustion.” Far from being rigid and impervious, American bureaucracies usually try—unsuccessfully, of course—to satisfy multiple conflicting goals, that is, to be both accountable and responsive, effective and equitable, efficient and scandal-free. Instead of bashing bureaucracy, Wilson suggests that we think more carefully about what government bureaucracies can do relatively effectively and what they cannot realistically be expected to accomplish.

Read More: Bureaucracy

Character and Culture

In the late 1980s, Wilson’s attention turned from the study of political organizations and crime to character and culture. In “The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy” (1985), Wilson observed that a great deal of public policy is aimed at changing the behavior of our fellow citizens. The usual way of doing so is by manipulating incentives, in order to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Yet, these efforts often aren’t very successful because human behavior is governed by many factors that are impervious to the limited policy tools available to government officials. Most importantly, Wilson noted, habits and culture overwhelm those tools. Several of his early essays in this vein are collected in On Character (1991).

By character, Wilson did not mean moral virtue. Rather, he meant something far more basic, self-control and empathy. These are usually taught in families and acquired through habituation. But Wilson also argues that families need the support of the wider community. And while direct government action may not accomplish very much in terms of promoting good character, that does not mean that private character can be viewed as a “wholly private matter.” According to Wilson, “Character is shaped, albeit indirectly, by public forces: by general opinion, by neighborhood expectations, by artistic conventions, by elite understandings, in short, by the ethos of the times.”

In 1993, Wilson published The Moral Sense, which he thought was his most important book. One of its central themes was the threat to character development posed by individualism bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment. Like Tocqueville, Wilson argued that individualism is both a great good and a subtle danger. It freed us from hereditary rules, slavery, and what Thomas Jefferson impishly called “monkish ignorance and superstition.” But it also threatens to undermine the family and the self-restraint that makes all of this possible. Wilson’s work on morality and character is not characterized by moralism. In fact, he believed strongly that character cannot be conveyed through preaching. Rather, he emphasized, following Aristotle, that strong character is developed through habituation. And habituation requires strong organizations to sustain it, including families, schools, voluntary associations, and patrolmen enforcing community norms. James Q. Wilson’s morality is thus deeply democratic. It is within the grasp of everyone.

Read More: Character, Culture

The Post-9/11 World

In the wake of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, many of the issues that Wilson had spent his life studying took on new significance: Why had bureaucracies such as the FBI and the CIA failed to coordinate their efforts and “connect the dots”? Is it possible to fight terrorism through the criminal justice process? Why do a small number of people embrace terrorism when most of those with similar demographic characteristics do not? The invasion of Iraq raised yet another: What are the preconditions of a decent, stable liberal democracy? What sort of beliefs and habits are necessary to sustain a liberal democracy? Within the United States, the war in Iraq further cranked up the partisan polarization that had been building for decades. What could we do about this, especially when such partisanship no longer ended at the water’s edge, but spilled over into foreign and defense policy? Wilson published numerous essays over the following decade, many of them collected in American Politics, Then and Now and Other Essays (2010), exploring these issues.

Read More: Religion, Terrorism