If I had written this more recently, I would merely have updated it, but by now an entirely new post is warranted. Rob Sica pointed out to me that Glenn Loury has an article on the legacy of James Q. Wilson in this month’s Boston Review. As Loury mentioned in some of the diavlogs I commented on earlier, Glenn knew Wilson personally and was involved in domestic policy neoconservatism in the 80s. I’m not going to go into his life’s course again, just focus on Wilson. Loury’s summation is that James was a good man but the effect of his work on society was negative. Incarceration rates increased dramatically after his acclaimed work justifying an increase in incarceration. Weighing up good and bad is inherently subjective, but I will start out by saying that given some reasonable priorities Loury’s conclusion is entirely legitimate (I might quibble on how we can establish Wilson had a causal effect, but even that seems plausible).
Like Loury, I’m going to spend most of this being critical. Loury is frustrated that Wilson “stubbornly reiterated” his old views on crime even as “mounting evidence […] showed that crime control had become too punitive”. In contrast Mark Kleiman tells us in this eulogy that Wilson signed on to a Supreme Court appeal which was based on rejecting an 80s criminology theory that Wilson had previously promoted. I’ve linked to Kleiman on Wilson a couple times, and Mark does of course have a more positive evaluation possibly related to his Wilson-inspired-but-critiquing book “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment”. I think it’s relevant that Wilson endorsed this book which argued that punitivity (probably a real word) and incarceration have gone too far in America.
Loury also criticizes fellow travelers like Edward Banfield and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (whom Loury once praised as having the prognostication of prognostications). He says Banfield’s focus on the values and character of the poor “might have made sense for Sicily, but did not travel well to the South Bronx”. It sounds applicable to me in either case and I’d like to hear an actual argument from Loury why not (I admit to not having read either Banfield book). As for Moynihan, Loury again acknowledges his perceptiveness but faults him for not coming up with social policies that solved the problems he described. The only person I can think of who passes such a high bar is Mark Kleiman, yet in their diavlog together Loury seemed to dismiss the “silver bullet” Kleiman had on offer with experimental evidence to back it up.
Glenn is correct in dinging Charles Murray for arguing that the child-rearing abilities of “bright” parents is the cause of social inequality, but for the wrong reason. As “The Nurture Assumption” and “Freakonomics” both discuss, parental involvement matters much less than we assume in child outcomes. He provides little support for his argument that the theories behind “Crime and Human Nature” were “of dubious scientific value”. He talks about what it “looks like” and “smacks of”, but shies away from making a scientific critique. In a previous diavlog he pointed out the section on body-types (ectomorph, mesomorph, etc) for ridicule, but as pointed out then there really does seem to be a significant correlation with crime and for some quite understandable reasons. I’d also add that the analogy between rearing children and training pets that Loury derides is just what Kleiman uses to indict our criminal justice system! Finally, I would have leaned toward Loury’s position on “broken windows” if I had read this decades ago. However, recent psychological experiments back up Wilson & George Kelling’s theory. Loury cites unnamed “scholarly critics across the ideological spectrum” failing to find evidence in favor of “quality of life policing”, but without citations it’s hard for laymen to evaluate such a claim.
Like Loury, I have little time for the Aristotelian vision of good life which closes out “Crime and Human Nature” and I presume is the basis fo “The Moral Sense” (which is why I haven’t read the latter). And if Wilson’s opinion that certain chemicals “debase” life is what caused thousands of people to spend years in prison, I will agree that is a terrible black mark on him and he should have been ashamed. He doesn’t make clear whether he agrees with Jim that our incarceration rate explains the lower rate of crimes like burglary compared to other first-world nations, the quote is brought out to speak for itself. Does Loury merely think that’s much too high a price to pay or is it an empirical mistake? I was disappointed in both his prior diavlog and his edition of Cato Unbound in which he shied away from empirical arguments, insisting that we as a society need to take responsibility for an ugly outcome and decide our political priorities (a la Christopher Glazek’s “Raise the Crime Rate“). Unfortunately he shies away from explicitly saying that in the Boston Review. I think the readers of that publication are thoughtful enough to deal with a two-handed economist.