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  Closing of the Frontier
  Scientific Racism
  The Children's Bureau
  Recent Social Trends

  The Great Depression
  The Gallup Poll
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  The Feminine Mystique
  The Moynihan Report
  Broken Windows
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  Census 2000


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James Q. Wilson Interview


James Q. Wilson is Professor Emeritus of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is Chairman, Board of Academic Advisors of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy. He is a past president of the American Political Science Association. He chaired the White House Task Force on Crime in 1966 and the National Advisory Commission of Drug Abuse Prevention in 1972-73. 

He is the author of Thinking About Crime; Varieties of Police Behavior; Crime and Human Nature; and The Moral Sense. He is a co-author of Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in our Communities.

James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson UCLA 
Author, Crime and Human Nature 

QUESTION: Let's talk about your study of urban blacks in the 1960s. How did you use measurement in your work? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: When I got my Ph.D. in 1959, I was a part of a group of people who were studying cities. And the reason I was part of that group is that I was at the University of Chicago, where the Chicago School of Sociology had been founded and ran, and where it has made its life studying cities, finding out how people thought in cities. So I wrote a doctoral dissertation about what were then called Negroes - Negroes in politics in Chicago. 

In studying cities we began to learn how people lived. And that was a great virtue. And it did not, at that time, involve measurement. It involved talking to people. It involved being a very good reporter who is interested in reporting a general idea as opposed to the specific details of who did what to whom yesterday. 

The study of cities - the study of human communities - has only with great difficulty [been] converted into something that can be analyzed with quantitative data. And the reason is because the important interesting questions about cities are very hard to measure, either with Commerce Department data or Census Bureau data or even public opinion data. You want to find out how people live, and generally they live on the basis of how they ought to live. 

In my case, studying black politics in Chicago in the 1950s, I wanted to know whether black politicians were advancing the interests of their race or simply catering to the white dominant political power structure in Chicago. And I concluded that, by and large, they were doing the latter. But doing the latter in a way that created a number of benefits for them, none of the benefits being intended. A lot of jobs got passed around, and they liked that. 

Now, I am not sure you can measure any of this. I then compared Chicago to New York and Los Angeles - two radically different cities - and I did the same kind of research in the other two cities. And I discovered in Los Angeles black politicians were [more concerned] about what was good for black people. The difficulty was they didn't have much power and couldn't deliver anything. And New York was about a halfway case. They were concerned about getting ahead in the machine - which was dominated by whites, largely Italians - and also [about] doing something [for] black people. And they did a little bit of both, but not much of either. 

Now, I don't know how you could reduce any of this to measurable data. It involves talking to people to find out what the larger structure of the community is about, and how people think about each other, and what their activities seem to be aimed at. In many cases they cannot tell you what their activities are aimed at. They are involved in the daily pressure of getting a job, getting out a vote, doing this, doing that. And if you ask them, "What is this all for?" they will stare at you blankly or give some flippant answer. You have to infer from what they are doing and from what they saying what this is about. And this is an example of the limits of measurement. You cannot measure everything that's important. Indeed, I would argue you cannot measure anything that is really important about human beings. 

QUESTION: When did you develop an interest in the study of crime? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: I became interested in the study of crime as an outgrowth of studying cities. At Harvard in the early 1960s I was studying police departments and trying to understand how the police influence government administration. I was thinking of police officers as urban bureaucrats. 

But in 1964, crime became a decisive issue in American politics, because Barry Goldawter made an argument about crime in the streets in his campaign against Lyndon Johnson. And Lyndon Johnson, being the kind of man he was, was not going to let any charge go unanswered. So after he won decisively in 1964, he immediately created a national commission on law enforcement and the administration of justice, determined to do whatever was in his power to reduce crime. Well, at that time there weren't many crime specialists in the United States. So, when a colleague of mine at the Harvard Law School, discovered I had been studying police, he decided to put me on a task force of this crime commission. I told him I didn't know anything about crime, and he said, "Well, look it up." 

I began reading about crime, and I decided that the existing literature on crime was rather poor. The existing literature on crime came out of small-group psychology. That is to say we studied gangs and small groups of boys growing up, and we studied teenagers living on cities. And we learned that people commit crimes because other people around them are committing crimes. I [think] that's probably true to some degree, but it doesn't help you control crime. And then I became part of a group that began to gather data on crimes across states, and asked the question, "If the policies of those states differ, will the crime rates, other things being equal, go up or go down?" And one of the things we looked at [was] whether [or not states with a high] probability of going to prison for a crime [had lower crime rates], all other things being equal. And we learned that the answer seemed to be yes. 

Now, to me, this was moving into quantitative analysis; [I was] becoming a measurer. What was I measuring? I was measuring something that we don't measure very well, crime rates. And so part of the problem with the analysis is that we may not measure crime accurately, and thus our generalization, the one I just uttered, may be dead wrong. So we had to do this many times in many states with many different kinds of crimes. And in one study I used the victimization survey reports that are gathered by the Census Bureau - where they go and ask people, "Have you ever been a victim of crime?" - in lieu of the crime data, just to see if this different measurement would produce different results. Well, it produced the same results. So I said, though crime is hard to measure, this generalization seems worth defending. 

QUESTION: The generalization being that, for example, a thug in prison can't rape my sister? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: The generalization is not about the thug in prison, but changing the chances of a would-be thug, out of prison, from committing a crime. Now, the average person on the street would also say that if you did that, the would-be thug out of prison is less likely to commit the crime. But that's a bigger intellectual leap. We know the thug in prison cannot rape your sister. What we don't know is whether the would-be thug out of prison might want to rape your sister. But now we are beginning to be able to say that higher penalties will reduce the chances of that happening. 

QUESTION: So it is generally accepted that would-be criminals are less likely to commit crimes when there is a higher chance of punishment? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: There is no unanimity of thought on any matter, including criminal deterrence. I would say that [those whom] I regard as the best scholars on this subject, there is general support for it. It was controversial enough so that a panel of the National Academy of Sciences was convened many years ago to look at this question and analyze the data. And they came to the typically equivocal conclusion that, "Well, under some circumstances it may be, but in others it may not be." But since then a lot more research has been done - not by me in this case - that addresses all the issues that the National Academy has raised. And the results still seem to be the same. 

QUESTION: What trends in the crime rate were you seeing during that period? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: Between 1963 and the early 1970s, the rate of violent crime more or less tripled in the United States. By "violent crime" I mean murder, manslaughter, and robbery and assault. So we had a tripling of the crime rate at a time when the country was by and large prosperous; [and,] except for Vietnam, more or less peaceful; in which the unemployment rates, even among African American adolescents, was really quite low. 

And this change occurred in part because the population was getting younger, though nobody had predicted this in advance. In retrospect it turned out that the youth of the population does contribute to the crime rate. But that wasn't the whole story. Our population getting younger probably explains no more than 15 or 20 or 25 percent of the increase. 

The rest of it was explained by two other factors: one that is easy to describe - namely, we had stopped sending people to prison. The prison population in the 1960s declined. It was lower at the end [of the decade] than it was at the beginning, even though the crime rate was going up. 

The other is harder to describe and impossible to measure. And that is the ethos, the culture of the country, had changed. The notion of "do your own thing," "strike out on your own," "turn on, tune out, drop out." These slogans, this attitude of radical self-indulgence, had affected a significant fraction of the population, and this weakened the ordinary social constraints that were operating on people. 

QUESTION: What has happened to the crime rate since the 1960s and 1970s? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: The crime rate after the 1970s continued to go up, and it continued to rise until about 1980-1981. From that time till now, the results are a bit hard to measure, but in general one can say that, except for juvenile crime, the crime rate has been coming down more or less steadily since 1981. It would have come down for juveniles as well, except in 1985 young people found crack cocaine. And crack cocaine is the laissez-faire drug; that is to say anybody can get it, anybody can sell it, and it doesn't cost much. It is Sears Roebuck come to the drug business. And they sold it on street corners, independent of what the Mafia or other large gangs would require. And this led a lot of young people to arm themselves and to shoot each other to enforce contracts or to protect their turf. And, as a consequence, from about 1985 to 1992 the juvenile homicide rate shot up dramatically. Among African Americans it tripled. 

But then in the early 1990s it began to come down again, and now the juvenile violent crime rate, like the adult violent crime rate, has been coming down. Now why? We are not sure. 

QUESTION: Why did the adult crime rate drop in the early 1980s? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: One of the reasons the adult crime rate came down beginning in the early 1980s is such a large fraction of adult criminals were being sent to prison. Between the 1960s and the late 1980s we quintupled - multiplied by a factor of five - the number of people in prison, the number of adults in prison. And as a consequence, a lot of people who would like to rob, murder or steal found themselves in prison, where they could only rob, murder, steal among other prisoners. The difficulty with this analysis is that it doesn't really explain what happens to juveniles, because we don't have good data on how frequently juveniles are punished, or what the relationship is between punishing one juvenile and thereby having an effect on the crime rate that might be committed by another juvenile. And as a result, we are at a bit of a loss to explain why the juvenile violent crime rate shot up in the late 1980s and then declined in the early 1990s. 

QUESTION: Tell me about the "Broken Windows" theory. How did it come about? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: When I was on the board of directors of the Police Foundation, people proposed to us that it would be a good idea if we had more foot patrol officers in our cities. It was a desire to return to what they thought were the good old days of yesterday, when a cop on the beat tapping his billy club on the side of his leg would walk along and keep everybody in order. Perhaps this would keep down the crime rate, because now we knew police officers were driving around in cars, they weren't talking to anybody, and they only responded if you dialed 911. [But] police chiefs were opposed to this. They believed that foot patrol would make no difference at all. 

But nonetheless the federal government sponsored an experiment in Newark, New Jersey, in which they gave the city the power to employ foot patrol officers, the money to pay for it, and asked the Police Foundation, a nonpartisan group of which I was a member, to evaluate it. Well, the chief evaluator came back and said, "The police chiefs are absolutely right; the foot patrol has had no effect on the crime rate." "But," he said, "it has made people in these communities feel much safer." So George and I got down together and said, "How can we explain this? Are people suffering from false consciousness? Do they think that they are safer even when the crime rate hasn't changed?" 

And in beginning to investigate this, we began to understand what people mean by "the crime rate." It is not some abstract number, like the number of robberies in the city. What they mean by "the crime rate" is what is going to happen to Mrs. Jones when she gets out of the supermarket, and goes to the bus stop to wait for a bus to go home. Or what's going to happen to Tommy when he comes out of the schoolyard after class and wants to go home. Or what happens to Mr. Jones when he is going to the hardware store. 

And in this arena of what's happening to these people, it is the level of disorder that counts as much as crime. By the level of disorder I mean graffiti on the walls, bums drinking alcohol out of paper bags on street corners, prostitutes hanging around, young teenage gangs making noise and wearing loud jackets. These signs of disorder make people apprehensive. And when people get apprehensive they tend to stay indoors. If they stay indoors it means that the streets are free for real crime to takeover. 

And so we made the argument that if you fix one [broken] window in a factory building, the other windows won't be broken. But if you allow the one broken window to go unfixed, soon all of the windows will be broken. And therefore, we urged the police to pay as much attention to public order - [or, rather,] the elimination of public disorder - by getting rid of prostitutes and gangs on street corners, by painting out the graffiti, by making people feel comfortable around their homes. [We thought] that this would do a lot for people, and possibly - this was the theory - actually drive down the crime rate. 

As it has later turned out, the research that has been done so far suggests that if you do these things, in fact the crime rate does come down, because good people are on the streets and bad people find it hard to take advantage of them. 

QUESTION: How has this theory influenced law enforcement? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: A lot of police agencies have responded to this idea of the broken window. Probably the most famous was the U.S. Transit Authority Police, and then later the New York City Police Department. But many cities all over the country have done the same. You find in lots of police departments graffiti campaigns; [you find] campaigns designed to get unlicensed street vendors off the streets, to deal more effectively with the homeless to make sure they have some place to go, to get in the appropriate neighborhoods foot patrol. Although foot patrol is clearly not the key remedy, but in some neighborhoods it makes a difference. 

This, we think, has help reduce the level of crime in some neighborhoods. But I say "we think," because the police departments that have done these things have also done a lot of other things. In New York, for example, they have made individual precinct commanders personally responsible for the crime rate in their districts. By doing this they make them feel that their whole career depends on making their neighborhood safe, whether or not they use the broken window strategy. And there have been other changes as well. So we can't say that the broken window strategy has driven down the crime rate in the cities that have tried it, but it is part of the package, and it is not making things worse. 

QUESTION: Frank Fukuyama describes the changes in the second half of the century as "the Great Disruption." Do you agree this description? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: I think the great transformation of the second half of the twentieth century - that has produced what Frank Fukuyama calls the great disruption - is a profound change. But unlike him, I am not convinced that its causes are to be found in the second half of the 20th century. Surely its accelerating factors were - birth control, women moving into the workplace, a freer press - there are many things no doubt that contributed to it. But you don't suddenly discover marriage is collapsing and out-of-wedlock births [are] skyrocketing because of events that have occurred in the last few years. It seemed to me the strains under which marriage had been operating are strains that have been operating for over a century, that, [for example,] the challenge to marriage as an institution has been going on for generations. 

In the 1890s English writers were talking about the constraints of marriage and demanding the idea of open marriage. And why? Well, they were reacting first of all to their own personal desire for self-expression and self-liberation. But they were also reacting to the fact that, historically, the forces that kept married people together had largely evaporated. The family as it began was a political unit, which had power. It was an economic unit, because everybody in the family produced on a piece of land the goods and commodities that sustained them. It was the kinship unit. And this was extremely important in the inheritance of property and in the maintenance of the sense of community identity. It was a center of education, because you learned at home. It was a center for old folks, because you took care of your dotty old grandmother at home. All of those things are gone. It's unreasonable to expect that the family will survive in its form in which it existed in 1800, when all of the functions it performed at that time save two have disappeared. The two functions that have not disappeared are personal affection and the care for children. You could add, I suppose, the division of labor. 

Now, this is a long-term process. No doubt the welfare system contributed to the breakdown. No doubt the Pill contributed to sexual promiscuity, although it's not clear that it would contribute to out-of-wedlock births or children being raised in single-parent families. Possibly women in the workplace may have contributed, although before 1800 all women were in the workplace - they worked in the farms all of the time. So I don't think that these events, profound as they are, have [only] recent causes. I think they have ancient causes. And understanding those ancient causes is a very important task. 

Now the other end of the story: What will happen in the future? I don't think we will have the Great Rebound. I don't think we are going to put society back together so that it will look again as it looked in 1955. Because I think these changes are endless and continuous and largely irreversible. The public will rebound in a sense that, since the public is nervous about divorce and doesn't like single-parent families and is skeptical about unbridled sexual promiscuity, they will set by cultural means some kinds of limits. They will pull back their own horns, so to speak, and urge their fellows to pull back their horns. And so we will find an upsurge and then a decline in these indicators of social disorder. But a permanent rebound? A change-back to the 1950s? I think that's extremely unlikely. 

QUESTION: How do you deal with these changes in your own work? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: My own work is very much engaged with why these changes came about, which requires me to look back two centuries or more to get an understanding of the evolution of human institutions. Now, in doing so, I seize on anecdotes. I take historical examples. But I also use data where they are available - data, for example, about the sex ratio. 

The ratio between the number of men and the number of women in society at a given point is extremely important. If there are a lot of men in proportion to a given number of women, then we will be in a period in which men will value marriage, because the value of a single woman is very high, because they are scarce. We will have conventional morality. Men's misbehaviors will be constrained, because if they are not constrained you won't get access to women. 

But when the sex ratio is low - when there are relatively few men and lots of women - then we are going to have a period of great disruption. We are going to have men engaging in sex out of marriage. The bonds of marriage will be loosened. Women will become more casual with their sexual favors. 

QUESTION: In general, how do you think our country is doing these days? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: I think the United States of America is doing extraordinarily well. With all our problems, with all our defects - and all these defects give advanced employment to social scientists like myself - we are nonetheless doing remarkably well. The second greatest thing that ever happened in my life was marrying my wife; but the greatest thing that ever happened to me was being born in America. 

QUESTION: What do you think is exceptional about America? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: America is the land that combines freedom and prosperity and mobility. It allows you to express yourself. It provides the widest array of education alternatives. It brings you into contact with the widest array of people from the most varied backgrounds - all of whom, in time, become Americans. It is extraordinary that there is such a thing as the American character, but there is, and it can't be denied. People come here from 140 to 170 nations. And in two generations they are American. Their last name may be odd, but they are American. They celebrate the same holidays, they move the same way, they talk the same way, they vote in similar, though not the same, ways. 

And what is this country? Why does it produce this character? It's not something that is found in our soil - there is no aristocracy here to pass it on, no established church to indoctrinate it. It is something about the political and social system that was created here. And I think the answer is to be found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. 

QUESTION: How has America dealt with the tension between liberty and order? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: We deal with the tension between liberty and order in the usual confused and ambiguous way that any serious culture deals with it. The two cannot be perfectly reconciled. But I think America makes the greatest effort to reconcile liberty and order. Sometimes it does so in ways that irritate me. There are things the American Civil Liberties Union can demand that I think are absolutely absurd. On the other hand, there are things that police officers demand that I think are wrong. But in the balance that we strike in providing ordered liberty - liberty within a framework of more or less stable expectations about how people are supposed to behave - we do very well. 

We don't do very well for everyone all of the time, and there are parts of our cities where we haven't done well at all. There are parts of our cities that are still victimized by gang warfare and predatory drug sales, single-parent families living, no fathers on the street to control disorder. These are disasters, and they are disasters of long standing. And we haven't made nearly as much progress as we should in eliminating it. 

But allowing for these problems, I still think that, for the people who have left the worst parts of the cities, and they are the overwhelming majority - black, white, whatever ethnicity or religion - they find a country they want to live in. 

QUESTION: Tell me about Daniel Patrick Moynihan. 

JAMES Q. WILSON: Pat Moynihan is a remarkable man. He is the best scholar who has ever been in the United States Senate, and the best politician who has ever sat on a university faculty. His combination of political and academic interests is remarkable. It is like keeping in balance liberty and order. He keeps in balance those two things. He is one of the few scholars who understands the political significance of his ideas, and he is one of the few politicians who understands that if the facts are against him he ought to change his mind. 

QUESTION: How did the Moynihan Report come about? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: When Pat Moynihan was a young government official he became very interested in the problem of the Negro family, as it was then known. And he published a famous paper about it, denounced left and right by academics, although now it is generally regarded to be right on the mark. 

And in the process of doing so, he began to wonder how the welfare system might contribute to this problem. And he gathered data to suggest that for many decades, from the advent of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program in 1935, right up until about the mid 1960s, the number of new admissions into the welfare rolls followed the unemployment rate precisely. The correlation was something like .9. 

[But,] beginning in the mid 1960s, admission to welfare went in one direction and unemployment went in the other direction. And I called this widening gap "Moynihan's scissors." I [wanted] to call attention to the fact that we have a problem here that we are not explaining. What is happening that a system designed at one time to care for people who might be facing financial adversity is now being used by people who may not be facing financial adversity? And the answer has to be something happened in our culture [a change in] how people feel about obligations, how they feel about receiving government money, what they feel about the stigma of welfare. That had changed. And until the passage of the Welfare Reform Act in 1996, that gap continued to exist. 

QUESTION: What did Moynihan argue in his report? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: The Moynihan Report, issued when Pat was an assistant secretary of labor, argued that there was a problem among black Americans, owing to the weakness of the black family. The particular focus of the Moynihan Report was on the high level of out-of-wedlock births leading to single-parent families among blacks. The issue was not out-of-wedlock births - that happens to all sorts of people, under all sorts of circumstances, and has been going on for centuries. 

The problem was raising a child under the care of a mother alone with no father present. Now, at the time Pat issued this report, African Americans were much more likely to be raised in single-parent families than were white Americans. The gap is still true today. But in the meantime, the proportion of children raised in single-parent families, mother-only families, has shot up for blacks and shot up for whites. So the gap is still wide, but the level is much higher. And he was trying to understand what this phenomenon of unmarried mothers raising children, fatherless children growing up, would mean - for schools, for the military, for welfare, for employment, for occupational development. Because it was his view, having grown up in a mother-only family, [that] the presence of a father was extremely important. 

QUESTION: To what factors do you attribute the increasing divorce rate? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: The increase in the divorce rate, which began big time in this country in the mid 1960s, had several causes. One was the movement of women into the work force, so that if they had an independent source of income, they were less dependent on their husband and could chart their own course. I think that was a contributing factor. I think another was the passage of no-fault divorce laws that began in California, spread across the country - indeed spread across most of Western Europe - laws which, in retrospect, now have made divorce much easier. There may have been other factors as well, including a cultural change. 

One last factor deserves to be mentioned, though it's hard to put in context for a modern audience. In the 1700s and the 1800s, the average married couple lived together for about twenty years, then they both died. Now a couple that gets married and stays married is going to be married for a half a century or more. So the question is: How long can a man and woman stand to be married to each other? Well, in my case, indefinitely. But I can understand why in some people's cases not always. 

QUESTION: What role has the United States played in the history of measurement? 

JAMES Q. WILSON: The United States has in many ways become the center of measurement. I don't think any other country measures itself as much as we do. If you want to find out about single-parent families, for example, you are not going to find much information outside the United States. If you want to learn something about drug abuse, you won't find much outside the United States. We measure ourselves so much. 

And why? I think we measure ourselves in a sense because we are so free. By freedom I mean that we do not have a government that runs many things. It advises many things. Or, more accurately, in the early part of the twentieth century it had largely an advisory role. When we had a Department of Commerce [its purpose] wasn't to run business; it was to gather data about business. When we created the Department of Labor, it wasn't to run labor unions; it was to gather data about labor unions. The Children's Bureau, when it became part of the Cabinet, was designed to gather data about children. 

In addition, we have this highly competitive, highly decentralized school system in which we have colleges that are private colleges or land-grant colleges or community colleges or state universities. And the competition among them, especially after the GI Bill brought so many millions of people into these colleges, made them struggle to advance knowledge. And one of the ways to advance knowledge was to hire people to count things. 

Now, all of these things are a background, of course, to the fact that we face certain problems. But these are problems every country faces. Every country has a drug abuse problem; every country probably has a single-parent family problem. But we are the ones who for decades have been counting these things.


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