James Q. Wilson on Crime and Drugs

James Q. Wilson, the prominent scholar on political science and crime, has died.  His most well-known work was an essay that he co-published with George Kelling in the Atlantic, Broken Windows” (which is not to be confused with the broken windows fallacy that is so well known in libertarian circles).  The gist of that article was that our social order can be pretty fragile.  If a broken window is not promptly repaired/replaced, the other windows of that building will soon be intentionally broken–and if nothing is done about that, the neighborhood might well spiral downward and will soon be regarded as a lousy area.  The article is now a classic.  In my opinion, it was his best work.

Dr. Wilson wrote on a wide range of subjects, but I am most familiar with his writings in the criminal law field.  He was a neoconservative  – so it will not surprise anyone that I found his record to be mixed.  He skewered the liberal ideas that (1) poverty “causes” crime and (2) that prisons are passé.  And he cautioned policymakers bent on more gun control laws, pointing to the growing body of evidence that armed citizens thwart a lot of criminal mayhem.

But then there was his approach to drug policy.  When Bill Bennett needed academic support or intellectual guidance, he seemed to turn to James Q.  Wilson, who, before the creation of the drug czar’s office, called for  the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in the Nixon period.   Like many of the zealots who pushed for alcohol prohibition, he saw the police effort against drug use as a moral crusade: “[D]rug use is wrong because it is immoral and it is immoral because it enslaves the mind and destroys the soul.”   For years and years, he championed the conservative program of more police, more prosecutors, more prisons, stiffer penalties.   Despite the escalation, drugs remain readily available.  And the gang violence–especially in Mexico–is getting worse. 

Dr. Wilson was also a big proponent of  police “stop and frisk” tactics–the idea that cops should stop pedestrians in the city and frisk them for weapons.  For white, middle-class Americans, think about having to endure a TSA airport search on your trips to the grocery store or on your commute to work! (For background, go here and here.)

I never met Dr. Wilson in person, but we spoke several times on the phone after he accepted my invitation to prepare an essay for my book, In the Name of Justice (2009).  He was a gentleman-scholar who influenced many.