Farewell to An Intellectual Giant

R.I.P James Q. Wilson, who passed away recently at the age of 81. The Wall Street Journal, where he was an important contributor, eulogized the legendary social scientist and published excerpts of some of his writings:
"A Life in the Public Interest," Sept. 21, 2009: The view that we know less than we thought we knew about how to change the human condition came, in time, to be called neoconservatism. Many of the writers [for The Public Interest], myself included, disliked the term because we did not think we were conservative, neo or paleo. (I voted for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and worked in the latter's presidential campaign.) It would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics; that is, people who thought it was hard, though not impossible, to make useful and important changes in public policy.

"A Cure for Selfishness," March 26, 1997: Perhaps the most powerful antidote to unfettered selfishness is property rights. If we are grazing cattle, we will conserve the land if we own it. If we are catching lobsters off the Maine coast, we can restrict over-fishing by allocating space to groups who informally "own" each space. If we want to conserve elephants, we should let people own the elephants. If we wish to water our rice in Bali, we do better if each village has ownership in a part of the water. If we want to conserve our country's oil reserves, we do better if the reserves are owned by firms than if the government "controls" the whole deposit.

"Democracy and the Corporation," Jan. 11, 1978: It's no surprise that academics in this country have been generally suspicious of business or that in a time like this, when general public confidence in the corporation has fallen, the expressions of hostility grow sharper. But there's rarely been a better example of this than Charles E. Lindblom's recent book "Politics and Markets: The World's Political-Economic Systems." . . .

The argument, stripped of its (minor) qualifications, can be simply stated: The large private corporation is a threat to democracy and, indeed, has no place in democratic theory. . . . [B]usinessmen have superior organization, enjoy disproportionate access to elected officials, dispose of vast political contributions (legal and illegal), control the appointment of government regulators and are capable of molding "human volitions" through advertising, ownership of the mass media and influence on school curricula. . . .

The contrary hypothesis is easily stated. Since the 1930s, and especially since the 1960s, the drift of public policy has been increasingly hostile to business. Public confidence in the corporation has fallen (indoctrination?), the national media are increasingly critical, capital formation is inhibited by taxes and inflationary policies, the profit margins of corporations have declined, social and economic regulations proliferate almost faster than the Federal Register can print them. . . . The student reading this book will learn nothing of the professions, the bureaucracy, the courts or the public interest law firms, and next to nothing of the mass media, intellectuals, "experts," universities and foundations that have a large effect on American public life.

May his scholarship live on for generations to come, and may he serve as a role model for future social scientists.