HomeAbout Think TankAbout Ben WattenbergPrevious ShowsWhere to WatchSpecials


Watch Videos and Listen to Podcasts at ThinkTankTV.com

  « Back to James Q Wilson pt. 2 main page
TranscriptsGuestsRelated ProgramsFeedback

Transcript for:

James Q Wilson pt. 2

BEN WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. When President Bush awarded James Q. Wilson the Medal of Freedom, he noted that Wilson writes with intellectual rigor and moral clarity.
Jim Wilsonís insights have placed him amongst the great social thinkers of our time. The topic before the house: Thinking things through with James Q. Wilson.
BEN WATTENBERG: Jim Wilson, old friend, welcome back to Think Tank again.
JIM WILSON: Thank you.
BEN WATTENBERG: You were there at the founding -- or more or less the founding of what is now called the neo-conservative movement.
BEN WATTENBERG: My sense is that the neo-conservative or the neo-conservative persuasion -- and we will grant that itís amorphous -- but it is generally characterized as starting about war and peace in geo politics.
My recollection of this new idea is that it formed basically on the roiling domestic issues, particularly crime. You and a colleague, George Kelling [phonetic], wrote an article for The Atlantic called ďBroken WindowsĒ which was based by you on many many many years of research and unusual for social scientists. It really did something.
It changed the way we dealt with crime. And many of us salute you for that and I wonder if you could tell us what it is, what it stands for, what it did.
JIM WILSON: Let me begin with another point I want to make first. The neo-conservative movement -- and there is such program -- was never interested in war. We disagreed deeply about Vietnam. Irving Crystal [phonetic] and Norman Podhoretz supported it. Daniel Bell and Nathan Glaser opposed it.
And as a consequence the magazine --
BEN WATTENBERG: [speaking over] Podhoretz did not support it at the time. He later -- he was against it originally. But any way go ahead thatís --
JIM WILSON: I understand that.
JIM WILSON: The Public Interest is magazine -- in 40 years, never ran an article on Vietnam, scarcely ever ran an article on foreign policy. And the reason is we disagreed. Now, suddenly, the word neo-conservative means loosely people who support the war in Iraq, which is another piece of mischief.
Because people I know who the world calls neo-conservatives -- and I consider my friends and who share my views disagree dramatically about whether we should have gone into Iraq and once there how we should have behaved ourselves.
So that war was never the issue that moved neo-conservatives. War was an issue that was thrust upon neo-conservatives by their critics. The key events were 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center towers that paralyzed the country. That was the most dramatic event to happen in this country since December 7th, 1941 -- and how the country would respond.
President Bush decided that we would respond by toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan with a handful of special forces aided by the United States and naval air forces.
Then came the invasion of Iraq. During this time in the Bush Administration, there were people who could be called neo-conservatives. That is to say they were the sons and daughters of people who grew up by defining neo-conservatism.
BEN WATTENBERG: I mean, Paul Wolfowitz would be a good example [speaking over each other]
JIM WILSON: Paul Wolfowitz would be a good example. Dick Cheney would not be a good example. Dick Cheney was a conservative throughout his life, never changed. George Bush was not a neo-conservative. Indeed, he was a President who came into office determined to become a domestic President and had foreign policy thrust upon him.
BEN WATTENBERG: And denounced national building.
JIM WILSON: And denounced national building. And, so then we succeeded remarkably in Afghanistan, although serious problems remain. We had had extraordinary military success in Iraq, led by Donald RUmsfeld, not a neo-conservative, a conservative -- traditional conservative all his life.
Then the question came, how do we rebuild Iraq and how do we rebuild Afghanistan. And there were some people who believed that the United States should advance the cause of spreading democracy in the world.
And some of these people were, again, the sons and daughters of neo-conservatives. There are other neo-conservative for whom this was absolutely nonsense. You donít spread democracy. You attend to Americaís natural material interest around the world.
But all of these distinctions were lost on the press and other critics who wanted to find a slogan by which they could identify the people who are responsible for what they regarded as the Middle Eastern disaster.
[speaking over each other]
JIM WILSON: And that slogan was neo-conservative.
BEN WATTENBERG: Where did you fit in on this? Did you support the war originally, do you still support, did Bush do the right thing?
JIM WILSON: I supported the invasion of Iraq. I believe he did the right thing. I believe the management of nation building was sadly deficient.
I think We are now on the road to fixing that. I believe what General Petraeus is doing is an extraordinary step forward. I am horrified by the fact that the United States Army, after having learned these lessons in the last year of the war in Vietnam promptly insisted on forgetting them and went into Iraq without the slightest in nation building. I hope now we donít forget it the second time around.
Now, back to crime. I had begun doing work on crime in the early 1960ís as a result of a public opinion poll that Edward Banfield and I did of the residents of the City of Boston.
We were both urban scholars. We worried about the future of cities. In those days, the 1950ís and 1960ís the future of the cities was a big issue.
So, we asked them in the poll what do you think the big problems are. And we expected a large fraction of them would say transportation, a large faction would say wages, a large faction would say taxes. No. Their view overwhelmingly was crime.
And I looked at that and then I began studying the crime data and I noticed that the crime data in fact was going up and it was going up very rapidly in large cities.
So, I began doing some research and discovered that states -- other things statistically being equal, which were more likely to send people to prison for a crime, had a lower crime rate than states that were less likely to send people for prison.
So, I published an essay in the New York Times Sunday Magazine which got me labeled in the pages of the Harvard Crimson, ďlock Ďem up Wilson,Ē simply because I made the revolutionary statement that sending people to prison and getting them off the street will help reduce the crime rate.
BEN WATTENBERG: Shame on you. [Laughter]
JIM WILSON: It was a dastardly thing to do.
Then I met George Kelling, because I was on the Board of Directors of the Police Foundation and he was one of our research directors. And we were doing a study in Newark, New Jersey, about the affect of foot patrol on crime rates.
We had a big grant from the Justice Department, we picked several precincts in which we tried foot patrols and matched them with precincts where there werenít foot patrols.
All police chiefs we interviewed about this said foot patrols will not affect the crime rate. We did the study and discovered the police chiefs were exactly right, it had no affect on the crime rate. What it did affect was how people thought about their city.
In the precincts that had foot patrol officers, the citizens used the streets more, talk to the officers more frequently and were enthusiastic about. So, we asked ourselves, whatís going on. Are these people in Newark just fooling themselves by thinking theyíre safer.
No, we began gathering data that showed that public disorder in the city is for many people as threatening as actual crime rates. By disorder, I mean, graffiti on the walls, rowdy teenagers on the corner, streetwalkers on the street, people aggressively soliciting money.
And, so, said in this article, 'Broken Windows', that the police should return to its earlier concern in the 19th Century about public order as well as public crime. And that dealing with disorder was an important as dealing with crime.
And that in essence was the article. We made the speculation that if the police deal effectively with public disorder that the crime rate might go down. The evidence as to whether the crime rate will go down if you deal with disorder is still a controversial issue in social science.
We think thereís evidence to support it, but somebody may --
BEN WATTENBERG: [speaking over] And who were the early mayors who put that into effect?
JIM WILSON: Well, the first person who took it seriously I think was William Bratton, who was for a while the police superintendent in Boston and then he ran the transit authority police in New York city and in the transit authority in New York city, he was very concerned that the subway cars were covered with graffiti and that people were jumping over the turnstiles without paying their fare.
So, he and the managers of the transit authority got together and programmed to get rid of the graffiti and they succeeded and the police in the subways decided to arrest people who were jumping over the turnstile.
Well, two things happened. First of all the public began using the subways much more frequently and, secondly, the people arrested for jumping over the turnstiles -- it turned out in a large fraction of the cases -- werenít just turnstile jumpers, they had felony warrants against them. This is a good way of picking up people who ought to be picked up and sending them to jail.
When Bratton later became police commissioner of New York under the leadership of Mayor Giuliani, they put in place a program called, ďquality of life policing,Ē which was to take the lessons of the subway experience and apply them city wide.
Letís get rid of graffiti, letís deal with rowdy teenagers, letís curb aggressive panhandling, letís get the street walkers and drug dealers off the streets.
Now, they did many other things too. Cop [unintelligible] the program for holding police precinct captains accountable for crime in their district -- a street crime unit that search for guns -- there were lots of things that went on.
And I donít want to assert that 'Broken Windows' made --
[speaking over each other]
BEN WATTENBERG: The phrase 'Broken Windows' refers to those buildings that had broken windows which were not quickly repaired and people used -- that was a symbol of -- that the government couldnít do anything.
JIM WILSON: Oh, it was more than a symbol. The phrase broken windows came from a couple of experiments, one done by a psychologist at Stanford named Philip Zimbardo [phonetic], who abandoned a car in the streets of Palo Alto, an upper class community, and on the streets of a lower class neighborhood in New York city. Just left it there to see how long it would take to be abused.
Well, the car that was abandoned in New York city had its windows broken, itís battery stolen, everything within a matter of days. The car abandoned in Palo Alto -- this very toney suburb -- didnít have anything happen to it until somebody broke one of the windows. And then in a matter of days the entire car was stripped.
So, the point was if you donít fix the first broken window, all of the windows will become broken. Hence the title of our essay.
BEN WATTENBERG: Jim, what are you working on now?
JIM WILSON: Peter Shuck and I -- heís a professor at the Yale Law School, and a former student of mine -- have edited a book consisting of a series of essays we commissioned from some of the best scholars in the country, trying to explain how America works.
Itís not about public policy. It doesnít answer the question what should you do about XY or Z. It simply tries to explain how America works the way it does, that itís designed for two audiences:
European critics of America -- which is to say most Europeans -- and Americans who think like Europeans and are critical of America -- who indicate as we say in the last chapter that Alexis de Tocqueville was right in 1835, America is exceptional.
It is a democratic nation. It is a capitalist nation. There are lots of those in the world. But the way democracy and capitalism is practiced in this country is fundamentally different from what occurs elsewhere and that makes America unique. We also add, although we donít try to prove it, better.
BEN WATTENBERG: I mean -- look there are other democratic countries.
JIM WILSON: Of course.
BEN WATTENBERG: Now, I think about 60 percent of the world is governed in some way or another by a -- by democratic governors. And the world is moving ever more toward some form of market economics.
So, what makes us -- are we different because we did it first or is it a difference in kind.
JIM WILSON: Weíre different because we did these things differently. There are lots of democratic countries, but only in the United States do you find a country where the legislature, the Congress is so powerful and independent of the President -- so that the checks between the President and the legislature are so important, so powerful, it makes it difficult to start new policies.
It means that we were laggers in developing a welfare system. It means that the central government doesnít run everything. It means that states have extraordinary responsibilities with respect to crime and land use and education at the environment --
BEN WATTENBERG: States and cities.
JIM WILSON: States and cities.
JIM WILSON: We are a capitalist country, there are lots of capitalist countries, but apart from small places such as Singapore and Hong Kong, we have the freest economy with relative low tax rates, except on corporations and this produces here a level of innovation and entrepreneurship that is literally unparalleled in the world.
So that itís not that weíre democratic, itís not that weíre capitalists, itís how we put those two things together that makes a difference.
BEN WATTENBERG: We are -- I have studied these public opinion polls -- the trans national polls particularly over time. Every one of them shows that however you measure the concept of patriotism, Americans, even when theyíre angry at their government are more patriotic than any nation in the world. Is that related to what youíre talking about?
JIM WILSON: Yes, we talk about this in the book. You ought to understand that America is different, is in fact exceptional. Look at patriotism, Americans dislike Congress intensely. They dislike the current President, George W. Bush, rather passionately. On the other hand they love the Constitution and they love the country.
Now, when they say they love the Constitution thatís not suggesting they are close students of it, they like the system, they like what it stands for.
When they come here, a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants, with immigrants flooding in every week, within short order they think the United States is the best country in the world and theyíre enormously proud to be here.
[speaking over each other]
BEN WATTENBERG: Talking about the new mgs coming in.
JIM WILSON: And if you ask the French or the Germans or the Japanese what they think about their country, theyíre very disheartened. They donít like France, they donít like Germany and they donít like Japan.
Now, why, we have created a culture here that reinforces our Constitutional and economic system. And itís a culture that -- with lots of exceptions and faults we could comment on -- rewards freedom.
And the people who come here value freedom and America stands for freedom in the world.
BEN WATTENBERG: Let me go back to something -- the neo-conservative movement such as it is, is regarded as largely Jewish. Correct or incorrect?
JIM WILSON: It is disproportionately Jewish, yes.
BEN WATTENBERG: You are not Jewish.
JIM WILSON: I am not Jewish, Pay Moynihan was not Jewish.
BEN WATTENBERG: Jim Woolsey is not Jewish, Jean Kirkpatrick was not Jewish. A lot of the people working for George W. Bush who are now called neo-cons are not Jewish.
But it came basically out of the Jewish culture in -- highly politicized Jewish culture in New York city.
BEN WATTENBERG: But the concepts -- I mean, my sense is it was not top down, it was bottom up. When you -- and you just indicated it -- you didnít go out saying well, I have a theory, crime is big problem, you went out and talked to people on the street corner.
JIM WILSON: They told me crime was a problem.
BEN WATTENBERG: And they said crime was a big problem.
JIM WILSON: Correct.
BEN WATTENBERG: And so you deal with crime and they say, gee, youíre a neo-con because we all know that law and order is a code word for racism or whatever the particular silliness was at that moment.
So -- and interestingly on the Iraq war for example, yes a lot of those neo-con hawks are pro Iraq -- were -- are -- but Jews in America -- you look at the public opinion polls -- are far more liberal than the rest of the [unintelligible] and are more against the war in Vietnam. Strange people. [Laughs] Some of my best friends are Jews. But it is a very peculiar political community.
JIM WILSON: Yes, and I think the decisive event that affected the Jewish participation and indeed the Jewish leadership of what later became the neo-conservative movement -- was the reaction of young people to the advent of Marxism in this country in the 1930ís.
The country was in a massive depressing, the worst economic disaster that has ever happened to us. A quarter of the world -- of the countryís workers were out of work. There were soup lines. Franklin Roosevelt had been elected and was struggling to think of a way to cure this.
Marxism said this was inevitable. This was the collapse of capitalism, to be replaced by the workers paradise for socialism and then communism.
Now, at the center of Jewish thought such as the City University of New York where a talented person could get a free college education in the 1930ís -- this was the topic in all of the dining rooms.
And those who began to dissent saying, well, we have problems but weíre not convinced that Marxism is the answer and certainly Stalinism is not the answer -- began to separate themselves from others and that cleavage persisted for decades between those who in one way or the other retained the Marxist urge even though they lost perhaps the ability to admire Stalin and those who rejected the [Marxist urge] and searched for something else. Now, that initial impulse which divided smart young Jewish boys was the genesis of what later became the neo-conservative movement.
And when other people joined it, myself or Jean Kirkpatrick or Pat Moynihan or countless of other people who did not have this experience, who were not Jewish, who never through any of these arguments -- we joined it because we thought that what they came away from, namely a commitment to analyzing public policy by using objective measures and thinking through costs and benefits was the right way to go.
And that right way to go is of course later embraced by the Think Tanks of which we have spoken: Brookings and American Enterprise Institute and Hoover, and the like.
BEN WATTENBERG: Letís just take a starting point, 9/11, 2001 -- have we continued as a nation, as a people to move ahead or are we stagnating, are we retrogressing.
JIM WILSON: Stagnating or retrogressing with respect to what?
BEN WATTENBERG: You name it. I mean, are we feeling good about ourselves, are we innovating, are we educating our children, are we -- America is said to be very unpopular around the world and yet it is without, it seems to me, more -- it may be unpopular at the same time it is more and more influential everyday as we speak -- to a point that the world has never seen.
And that may be related -- weíre unpopular because we are so influential -- but what is your -- youíre a man of -- 76 years old -- which way are we going.
JIM WILSON: I think with respect to many measures weíre moving ahead. With respect to many others weíre falling behind and with respect to still others weíre stagnant.
Weíre moving ahead economically. Weíre moving ahead with respect to entrepreneurship. The American military is the wonder of the modern world. Thereís nothing like it that has ever existed before. The extent of our freedoms are undiminished.
We are stagnant with respect to improving the lives of families in this country, the family problem, the single parent mother problem is to me our largest domestic issue.
Itís not getting dramatically worse, but itís not getting better. And just this year the proportion of teenagers giving birth has started to go up again. So, weíre stagnant.
With respect to education I believe weíre falling behind. Each President says by some date certain we will provide reading ability, full math ability to all the students in the America.
It never happens. Itís not going to happen with the No Child Left Behind Act. Our schools -- our public schools in big cities are failures and dealing with that problem, producing a domestically educated entrepreneurial and engineering -- classes -- extremely urgent -- and weíre falling further and further behind.
There are ways around this, vouchers, private schools, charter schools, each of which has some benefit, but the country is unwilling to make a commitment to it.
And, so, I think with respect to education weíre going behind, with respect to families we are at best stagnant and perhaps worse. With respect to economics and military leadership weíre moving ahead dramatically.
BEN WATTENBERG: Weíve talked -- going back to your -- long time -- 50 odd years -- right in the middle of this intellectual cauldron -- has it been fun. Has it been fulfilling?
JIM WILSON: It has been the most enjoyable thing Iíve ever done. I went to college thinking that if I learned something clever in graduate school, I would be able to answer interesting questions about how the world works.
By accident that has happened. I was never interested in getting a PHD so I could push back scholarly frontiers into ever more distant areas, so that I could be one of those persons who, by knowing more and more, by -- about less and less would soon know everything about nothing.
I wanted to be able to answer questions and I fell in with a group of people, some colleagues at Harvard some in the Public Interest some at Commentary, many at American Enterprise Institute, who shared this view. And Iíve been immensely lucky. Itís just been great fun.
BEN WATTENBERG: Jim Wilson thank you very much for joining us again on THINK TANK, you are always welcome.
And thank you. Please remember to send your comments via email. We think it makes THINK TANK a better program. For THINK TANK Iím Ben Wattenberg.
ANNOUNCER: We at THINK TANK depend on your views to make our program better. Please send your questions and comments to: Grace Creek Media, 7950 Jones Branch Road, McLean, Virginia 22108. Or email us at thinktank@PBS.Org.
To learn more about THINK TANK, visit PBS.ORG and please let us know where you watch THINK TANK.

Back to top

Think Tank is made possible by generous support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Dodge Jones Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc.

©Copyright Think Tank. All rights reserved.
BJW, Inc.  New River Media 

Web development by Bean Creative.