James Q. Wilson died today, and the world is poorer for it.
I never had a course with him, but his book Thinking About Crime, which I read long before I had any professional interest in the topic, awoke me from my dogmatic liberal slumber on issues of social control. That’s not to say that I always agreed with him; there will be time enough later to rehearse our disagreements.
The things that made Jim special – beyond his massive intellect, wide reading, and graceful, accurate prose – were his generosity of spirit and his deep moral and intellectual seriousness. At a time when he was very much committed to the Red team, he helped spread my ideas despite what he knew were my strong Blue loyalties. (Unsolicited, he gave When Brute Force Fails, which is largely a rebuttal to Thinking About Crime, its best blurb.) Jim wanted to get things right, even when that meant acknowledging that he had earlier been wrong: a tendency not common among academics, or among participants in policy debates.
Recently I was asked to sign on to an amicus brief in a case involving the constitutionality of imposing life imprisonment without parole on those who were legally juveniles at the time of their offending behavior. The argument of the brief was straightforward: legislatures had passed juvenile LWOP under the influence of the idea that the 1980s had seen the rise of a new generation of “juvenile super-predators,” whose propensity to violence put the nation at risk of a bloodbath once they became adults unless they were kept behind bars. In fact, the upsurge in deadly violence by adolescents turned out to be merely a side-effect of the crack markets; instead of soaring, violent crime fell sharply. But the laws passed while the theory was in vogue remain in force.
Jim had been one of the promoters of the “super-predator” theory, though he was not its originator. When I glanced down the list of signatories for the amicus I found, at the bottom, “James Q. Wilson.”
I can only hope that the Court will understand the significance of that name for the status of the theory. Its significance for the moral stature of Jim Wilson is fairly obvious.
Alas, after they made Jim, they broke the mold.