I was saddened today to learn of the death of James Q. Wilson, one of the leading political scientists of his generation and a key thinker about how government really works. I've returned to his book Bureaucracy (eloquently summarized by my erstwhile colleague and Fedblogger Alyssa Rosenberg here) many times over the years for insights about the machinery of government.
The book contains two of my favorite quotes. First is this, from the preface to a recent edition:
We have less confidence in government precisely because it is trying to do many things that cannot be done, by anyone, very well.
Then there's this, about a topic of great interest to the Obama administration these days -- reorganizing federal agencies:
Presidents have taken to reorganizations the way overweight people take to fad diets -- and with about the same results.
Wilson gained fame for his highly influential 1982 piece "Broken Windows" in our sister publication, The Atlantic, which posited that failing to stop small acts of criminal behavior in urban areas led to greater crimes. His work won him the respect and admiration of many conservatives.
But Wilson also acknowledged the power of government to effect change in society. Just last year, in a piece in The Wall Street Journal, he tried to come up with an explanation for why the crime rate didn't explode amidst the recent recession -- as experts predicted based on historical trends. His theory was that societal actions, many of them undertaken by government entities, combined to have a positive effect on crime. Some actions were direct, such as stepped-up law enforcement. Others were indirect and long-term. Environmental Protection Agency efforts since 1974 to keep lead out of gasoline and paint products, for example, may have resulted in reduced crime rates by curbing the aggressive behavior linked to lead exposure.
That's just one example of the kind of thinking embodied in Wilson's work that will be greatly missed.