Wilson’s obituaries have highlighted his best-known contribution to public policy: his “broken windows theory of crime.” Wilson, along with his co-researcher George R. Kelling, argued that a quickly repaired broken window signals to vandals and criminals that neighbors are committed to maintaining a safe and respectable community, while an unrepaired broken window is an invitation to further antisocial behavior and crime. This theory was applied to policing and urban policies in the 1980s and 1990s in ways that made America’s cities safer.
Wilson’s “broken windows” theory is his most well-known and influential contribution to public policy. But it is also representative of his work in at least two important ways.
First, Wilson was an empiricist whose work was marked by careful attention to data and facts. So, while he was known an a conservative, his work was broadly influential in part because it was so thoroughly informed by empirical data. The “broken windows” theory was taken up by police chiefs, mayors, and city managers of different political stripes because it had such strong empirical support.
Second, Wilson’s focus was always on the intermediate institutions between individuals and the government -- that is, on the institutions of civil society and culture. As he noted
Nations differ in their history, politics, economics, and culture. Although the first three of these differences have been carefully described and explained by scholars, hardly anyone has done a thorough job of explaining culture. Yet every person who travels overseas sees and feels the cultural differences immediately.
It’s a lot easier to gather data on history, politics, and economics than to gather data on culture -- which is why so many social scientists focus on history, politics, and economics rather than on the hard-to-get-your-hands-on notion of culture. Wilson was, however, convinced that a society’s success or failure ultimately depends upon its cultural resources.
So, in spite of the greater scholarly challenges, Wilson dedicated himself to being one of those scholars who did attempt to understand culture. His nearly twenty books, which, in their treatment of topics as varied as crime, marriage, morality, and government, are a unity corpus in being mediations on the success and threats to the success of American culture. (Wilson wrote one book that stands outside his other writings: Watching Fishes: Life and Behavior on Coral Reefs, which he wrote with his wife, Roberta, and which came out of the Wilsons’ shared enthusiasm for diving.)
Even in his work on government, Wilson did not study the formal institutions of government but instead produced landmark studies of the cultures of bureaucracies and political organizations, including Bureaucracy (1989) and Political Organizations (1973). Wilson gathered the data to show that bureaucracies respond to their own internal incentives with the consequence that they frequently fail to carry out the policies that they are charged with implementing and that likewise the culture within political organizations leads those organizations to pursue objectives other than those they are purportedly organized to pursue.
Wilson himself thought that his very best book was The Moral Sense (1993). In that book, Wilson explains why culture and the institutions of civil society should be of preeminent concern to political and social scientists, as well as the rest of us:
Liberal, democratic politics, the politics of a free society, are an impressive -- indeed, virtually the only -- safeguard against the various tyrannies that political theorists and their enraged acolytes can invent. The fundamental aim of the totalitarian state is the destruction of civil society; only the openness, spontaneity, and confusing hubbub of pluralist, democratic politics can guard against that destruction.
Sympathy and a sense of fairness -- which Wilson identified as two key components of “the moral sense” -- were connected by him to altruism and charity, and so to a philanthropic concern with those around us. James Q. Wilson reminded us of why altruism, charity, and philanthropy aren’t just a way of being nice or “giving back” but are aspects of that civil society that are essential to the success of the American, and every other democratic, polity.