The most accomplished social scientist of the last half-century would occasionally visit his friend and Harvard colleague Pat Moynihan at the White House when Moynihan was President Nixon’s domestic policy adviser. Once Moynihan took him to Nixon and said: “Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.” Moynihan was right on both counts.
Wilson, who has died at 80, understood America’s unending argument about how freedom both depends upon government and is threatened by it, and how freedom competes with other values. He also understood that although social science cannot tell us what to do, it can tell us what is not working, which has included a lot since the radical expansion of what is considered political.
New Deal liberalism, Wilson said, was concerned with who got what, when, where and how; since the 1960s, liberalism has been concerned with who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where and who feels how: “Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything.”
Until the 1960s, Wilson said, “the chief issue in any congressional argument over new policies was whether it was legitimate for the federal government to do something at all.” But since the “legitimacy barrier” fell, “no program is any longer ‘new’ — it is seen, rather, as an extension, a modification, or an enlargement of something the government is already doing.”
The normal dynamic of politics, Wilson warned, is a process of addition, candidates promising to add to government’s menu of benefits. Hence today’s problem of collective choice: Can Washington, acknowledging no limit to its scope and responding to clamorous factions that proliferate because of its hyperactivity, make difficult choices? With government no longer constrained by either the old constitutional understanding of its limits or by the old stigma against deficit spending, hard choices can be deferred, and are.
Try, he wrote, to think “of a human want or difficulty that is not now defined as a ‘public policy problem.’” The defining is done by elites to whose ideas of the political system have become so open that changes of policy often result not from changes of public opinion but from changes in the way elites think. Liberal elites define problems as amenable to government engineering of new social structures. Conservative elites emphasize the cultural roots of many problems and hence their intractability.
America, Wilson said, increasingly faces “problems that do not seem to respond, or to respond enough, to changes in incentives.” This is because culture is often determinative, is harder to change than incentives and impedes individuals’ abilities to respond to incentives. If Wilson was right, his wisdom should inform America’s worries about increasing inequality.
Largely because of genetic factors and partly because of advantages of nurturing that cannot be redistributed by government, people differ in aptitudes. Society tends to reward useful aptitudes. This produces hierarchies of pay and power that are resistant to rearrangement by government, including government attempts to redistribute income. Such attempts often ignore how income differences are necessary to reward activities, and ignore history, which suggests that economic growth, which redistribution often inhibits, does more than redistributionist measures to narrow inequalities.
Wilson warned that we should be careful about what we think we are, lest we become that. Human nature, he said, is not infinitely plastic; we cannot be socialized to accept anything. We do not recoil from Auschwitz only because our culture has so disposed us. Children, Wilson thought, are intuitive moralists, but instincts founded in nature must be nurtured in families.
The fact that much of modern life, from family disintegration to scabrous entertainment, is shocking is evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked. And the highest purpose of politics is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that nurtures rather than weakens the promptings of the moral sense.
Elegant in bearing, voracious for learning, eloquent in advocacy and amiable in disputation, Wilson was a prophet honored in his own country, including with the presidency of the American Political Science Association and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Every contemporary writer about American society and politics knows how Mel Torme must have felt being a singer in Frank Sinatra’s era. Everyone else has competed for the silver medal. Wilson won the gold.
George Will’s email address is georgewill@ washpost.com.