An interview with James Q. Wilson (1995) | THINK TANK

An interview with James Q. Wilson (1995) | THINK TANK


Ben: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. The President has delivered his State of the
Union Address. On this special edition of “Think Tank,” we’ll
talk with one of America’s truly eminent social scientists about how he sees the state of
our union. James Q. Wilson on “Crime, Welfare, the Family,
and America,” this week on “Think Tank.” Joining us today is James Q. Wilson, professor
of Management and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of many books including “Crime
and Human Nature,” “On Character,” and “The Moral Sense.” Professor Wilson is a former president of
the American Political Science Association and a recipient of its James Madison Award. Welcome to “Think Tank”… Prof. Wilson: Thank you. Ben: Professor Wilson. I have been reading some of your recent work,
particularly some articles. And it seems to me that what you are doing
is trying to sort of present a unified field theory, the “Wilson Unified Field Theory,”
relating social sciences to moral philosophy. I mean, your two most recent books are “On
Character” and “The Moral Sense.” That is not what you normally would think
of a social scientist or a political scientist writing about. Prof. Wilson: It’s barely what you think a
philosopher would be writing about today in the era of analytical philosophy. Ben: Right. Prof. Wilson: That’s essentially right. I began as a political scientist. I began studying politics on the back streets
of Chicago and then politics in New York. I became interested, however, in the problem
of forming stable human communities. Because as you look at politics and policing
and crime, you realize that what we’re struggling with are is to rediscover or re-establish
the principle by which natural communities can form and sustain themselves. And that leads to the question, “What leads
to communities?” And it came to be my view that there is a
natural, universal human nature that drives us into communities, that makes us want to
be together. And that the culture we erect, the government
we put in place, and the laws we design, are to be tested by the principle of whether they
facilitate the formation and maintenance of stable human communities. The downside of this, however, is that if
these communities are too local, too parochial, then they become vehicles for racism and xenophobia,
and exploitation, and warfare. It’s a fine line and I’m not sure our culture
has yet learned how to walk that fine line. Ben: Is this the ancient tension between freedom
and discipline? Is that what we’re talking about? I mean, I know you’ve written that modernism
is terrific for most people, but it also leads into some chaos which people resent deeply. Prof. Wilson: It is the ancient tension you
find in Henry Adams’ writings. You find it in the writings of almost anyone
who is trying to reconcile community and order on the one hand with personal freedom and
progress and skeptical reason on the other hand. This civilization of which we are a part now,
2,000 or 3,000 years old, was begun by communities that felt that order and cohesion and tradition
ought to dominate. And that’s still the case in many parts of
the world. But beginning in the 1800s, a small number
of thinkers in Edinborough and Glasgow and Paris and London began asserting the power
of the individual mind, to understand the individual’s own place in the world, and to
assert that individual reason unaided by revealed religion or ancient tradition could establish
a new order. And that new order came into being. We call it capitalism, democracy, freedom,
science, technology. Ben: And it is an intoxicating brew, isn’t
it? Prof. Wilson: It is an intoxicating brew. Ben: I mean, it’s sweeping the world. I mean, this is American popular culture and
all that kind of stuff is knocking over all the pins. Prof. Wilson: Well, almost all of the pins,
but it’s coming up against the barrier. The great dividing line, I think, around the
globe today is the dividing line that goes as follows. On one side are the children of the enlightenment,
those who believe in reason, individualism, and personal freedom. On the other side of the dividing line is
the world of Islam and Confucianism, the world that believes that man’s reason cannot grasp
his own state, that tradition, authority, religion embedded in the state ought to govern
mankind. And they’re betting that we’re wrong and they’re
pointing to crime, drug abuse, and family dissolution as evidence that they’re wrong…rather,
we’re wrong and they’re right. Ben: On the theory that neither of us practice
Islam or Confucianism. So we, too, and the vast majority of our audience
would be children of the enlightenment. Prof. Wilson: Yes. Ben: Okay. Now, within that rubric of children of the
enlightenment, there is a split. Some people saying, “Great. Individualism, freedom, do your own thing.” And then there are people like yourself who
are saying we somehow have to put discipline back in the enlightenment equation. Prof. Wilson: Yes. I think that the tension we find within ourselves
is the tension that began at the turn of the century that accelerated in the 1920s after
the First World War and that came to full flowering in the 1960s. And it is the tension between that part of
our society that gives people an enhanced grip-on and a enhanced devotion to either
individual reason or personal self-assertion, and leaves behind, as assumed moral capital,
those institutions, family, village, church, that permits people to exercise those freedoms
responsibly. And the tension we now face, I think, is between
those who believe that that moral capital need not be assumed. In fact, that it’s a burden. It’s bourgeois, Philistine life, and not to
be ignored, and those people who believe that only that the moral capital ought to be assumed
to exist but that it must be replenished and that we have failed to replenish that stock. Ben: Is that a good definition of the split
in American political life between liberals and conservatives? Prof. Wilson: I think it’s a fundamental split
in our life. And I’m not sure whether the words “liberal”
or “conservative” belong to it. I mean, where is libertarian in this definition? A libertarian is, on many economic grounds,
quite conservative. But on matters of self-expression, personal
freedom, extremely liberal. But it is the fundamental cleavage. It’s the cleavage between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It’s the cleavage between emancipation and
religion. It’s the cleavage that drives the social issues
of our day. Ben: Let me go to some specifics now. I wanna talk, I guess, mostly about welfare
and crime. You recently did an article in the “City Journal”
for the Manhattan Institute about welfare reform and character development. And you said there are three potential solutions,
structural, rational, and cultural. And then you said there are three precepts
by which we can attack each or any of those problems. Could you sort of lay out that thesis now
that we’ve sort of discovered your purchase on things in general? Prof. Wilson: I think welfare reform is a
good test of what divides us. The enlightenment view is either jobs have
moved out of the city and, therefore, people can’t work and hence are on welfare. That’s the structuralist’s view. Or they argue that we have given the wrong
incentives to poor people by rewarding them for having illegitimate children, rewarding
them for not working, rewarding them for not getting married. That’s also the enlightenment view. But the other view, the view for which I don’t
have an adequate name on it yet, is saying those things probably contribute to some degree. But what is fundamentally changed is the idea
that marriage is a sacrament, a commitment, that it is essential, that two parents are
almost invariably better than one, and that allowing, culturally or economically, single-parent
households to grow up is a disaster. Now, my view is much more on the cultural
side although I recognize the force of the other two arguments. And the reason it is is because worldwide
this is happening. No matter what kind of welfare system you
put in place, no matter what kind of payments you make, no matter how you organize the economy
in the West, single-parent households are becoming the norm. Ben: Yeah. But you and I have had this discussion before. I mean, let us stipulate. I think most people in the world would agree,
Dan Quayle was right. A single-parent family, a lack of a father
in the house, is a dreadful way to bring up a child, with some exceptions. We are encouraging that. We are buying illegitimate babies in this
country. You know that. I mean, the welfare package for a young woman
who has an out-of-wedlock child, if you’re counting all the benefits, is estimated somewhere
between $16,000 and $20,000. Prof. Wilson: Yes, of course, it… Ben: So isn’t that the same issue? And if you go after the governmental side,
look, government caused it, government ought to be able to cure it. That’s a discreet target. And you have a political format in this country. If you go the other way, you are…and I have
no objection…what you are saying is the churches ought to be better. More people ought to go to the YMCA, which
is fine. But what’s the action point? What’s the touch point to do something? Prof. Wilson: You, Ben, think of this as a
public policy problem. Ben: Right. Prof. Wilson: And I don’t think of it as a
public policy problem. You assume that if we have a problem in society,
that government has a purchase on it. Government… Ben: The government caused some of these problems. Prof. Wilson: Government caused it but government
can’t correct everything it causes. Glenn Larry has a good example. If you pull on a string that’s part of a sweater,
you can unravel the sweater. But you can’t put the sweater back together
by pushing on the string. Government’s existence of welfare program
facilitated the growth of the single-parent family underclass, even though government
programs of a very different nature abroad have also produced the same effect. Abroad, they don’t reward people for having
illegitimate children. Abroad, they have children’s allowances. You can get money from the government whether
you’re married or unmarried. Ben: But that rewards an unmarried mother
with a child if she gets her children’s allowance even if she’s not married. Isn’t the whole panoply of social welfare
states doing that? Prof. Wilson: No, they’re all doing it differently. Ben: But with the same premise. Out-of-wedlock children are not stigmatized. Prof. Wilson: That’s the key. Out-of-wedlock children are not stigmatized. And that’s the cultural component. I agree with you that the government ought
to reconsider its welfare policy here and abroad. I agree with you that there ought to be probably
a cap on benefits. I agree with you that if we can somehow, by
modifying that policy, remove what makes it so easy for this single-parent family underclass
to sustain itself, that is worth doing. But I’m adding, in addition, the argument
that even if we remove it, it won’t undo the damage. It takes 10 years to destroy a weak family
by perverse incentives. It’s going to take two or three generations
to put it back together again. And the putting back together doesn’t automatically
follow from changing the incentives. Ben: It seems to me that this welfare argument,
when you get right down to the short strokes on it, it is between people who are saying,
“We have to save this generation,” and people who are saying, “We have to save the next
generation. There’s not a whole lot you can do about this
generation. We’ll do the best we can. We’ll do sort of Clint-and-light or Clint-and-heavy
and, you know, try to get them into work and whatever.” But as you have written so eloquently, those
programs have not worked very well. And then, those of us who were saying, “Look,
concentrate on the next generation. Cut all those rewards and benefits. Make it prospective and say, ‘A year after
the passage of a new welfare bill, we are not going to give cash benefits to out-of-wedlock
births.'” You buy that? Prof. Wilson: I would be willing to see that
tried. My view is that we are both making bets on
the future. And neither one of us, indeed no one, really
knows how to make a bet on the future. But we have 50 states and I want to see a
welfare law that tells, that encourages some states to do exactly what you said, and other
states to do something quite different. Perhaps leave the welfare check intact but
have the check go not to the young woman, but to go to an entity, a family home, the
Florence Crittenton Center, the Salvation Army, the St. Martin De Porres Home in Chicago
where if she wants the benefits of the check, she and her child have to go and live under
truly adult supervision. And then let’s find out, 3, 5, 10 years from
now which combination of strategies is making the greatest progress. I don’t wanna make a bet on the future of
young children based simply on what we now know or what lessons we think we can extract
from history. Ben: Let’s talk about crime. How does this same “Unified Field Theory”
of morality mixed with social science… You have, I guess, started out as a, I was
gonna say a criminal social scientist, as a social scientist who studies criminality. Is there a similar sort of a pattern? Prof. Wilson: I think so. In every culture, the vast majority of people
obey the law with relatively little governmental constraint. In every culture, a small fraction, mostly
young males, don’t obey the law without a lot of constraint. Those are the uniformities of human nature. Six percent of any group of 18-year-old boys
in London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Philadelphia, racing in Wisconsin, Orange County, California,
get in trouble with the law. What’s different across countries is the cultural
and legal context into which that happens. If the cultural and legal context weakens,
then the 6% will not simply commit some crimes. They will commit a horrendous number of crimes. So the problem, therefore, is can we address
what is going on in the lives of the 6% at the same time that we tighten the cultural
constraints and the legal constraints around them? Now, in this country, we have only a few techniques
we can use to tighten the constraints around them. The best we can do is make credible threats
of punishment. This country, for 20 years, reduced the credibility
of any serious threat of punishment, from 1960 to at least 1980. The probability of going to prison was going
down for most crimes. Ben: So you are a distinguished social scientist,
a student of criminology. And what you are saying is what the man on
the street was saying 25 years ago, is this country is getting soft on crime. Prof. Wilson: Of course. Of course, they were right. Ben: Do most of your colleagues agree with
that? Prof. Wilson: No. Most of my…many of my colleagues think that
the United States over-prisons, imprisons people. And we make use of prison too frequently,
and that we put the wrong people in prison. I believe they’re wrong but it’s a lively
and spirited debate. But I also believe that prison alone isn’t
a sufficient answer because if our real problem is 14-year-olds armed with 9 millimeter weapons
who are going around shooting randomly in their neighborhood and killing 2-year-old
babies, it’s a long time before the adult criminal justice system will catch up with
him. By the time it does catch up with him, there
will be a lot of bodies on the street. So then the question is, how can we address
the way in which that 6% grows up? And it seems to me that’s the linkage with
the welfare reform debate. One of the reasons I don’t want to rely simply
on changing economic incentives is that I want to capture what we can of that newborn
generation of children. We now have $19 billion spent on welfare. It goes to mothers. If the money, or a large fraction of it, went
to places in which the mother and child live and the mother was taught how to raise that
child so that that child would not grow up, if he’s a boy, thinking that male predatory
sexuality, impregnating as many women as possible, escaping the burdens of fatherhood, never
looking for a job unless a job is handed to him, using drugs the first opportunity, if
all of those things were not part of the equation because the environment now was rewarding
different attitudes, we might be able to change the causal factors that are driving part of
the crime rate. Ben: So you are saying that intelligent welfare
is a cure to crime. Prof. Wilson: I think that the welfare reform
debate and the crime control debate are one and the same debate and ought to be linked,
not because all welfare recipients are criminals. That’s not true. But the overwhelming majority of people in
prison have grown up in single-parent households. Ben: So when the Democrats say, “We need prevention
programs,” and the Republicans say, “That’s pork,” under those broad rubrics, you would
be a liberal. You would come out you are in favor of prevention
program. Now, you may not like midnight basketball
but is that right? Prof. Wilson: I’m in favor of prevention programs
if they’re based on what we know, scientifically know, about prevention programs. And that is, that you cannot start young enough. You must deal with very young children who
are living in at-risk neighborhoods. You can’t have a prevention program aimed
at 15-year-olds. We have no evidence that any of those programs
make a difference. You can’t have prevention programs that try
to rehabilitate offenders. With trivial exceptions, we have largely no
evidence that they were. Where we do have evidence is that the at-risk
children begin to display anti-social behavior by the time they’re six or seven years old. And as a result of having grown up in a family
with an abusive parent, an alcoholic parent, a criminal parent, a parent who practices
cold, inconsistent or indifferent discipline, that’s where the intervention has to take
place. Now will these programs work? The only few cases we have, and they’re small,
they’re experimental, they’re hard to generalize, suggest that those programs do make a difference
and the difference last for 20 years. Ben: Jim, doesn’t that lead you inexorably
to the “O” word, which has come to be the orphanage word? Isn’t that in effect…I mean, were I a liberal,
Heaven forfend, and I heard that, I’d say, “Oh, this guy believes in orphanages.” Prof. Wilson: That’s the measure of… Ben: Just like Newt Gingrich. Prof. Wilson: That’s a measure of soundbite
journalism and soundbite policy analysis which is what passes for deep thinking in Washington,
D.C. Orphanages are institutions designed to house children who have been abandoned
by their parents or who both parents are dead. We always have had orphanages. The problem is not children that had been
abandoned by their parents or who both parents are dead. The problem is children being raised by a
teenage mother who doesn’t know how to raise them. Now, if that mother and the child go into
an institution, it’s not an orphanage. It’s a family shelter. We’ve had such shelters in this country for
decades. We’ve usually called them “Maternity Homes.” You go in there just before the child is due. You learn how to take care of the newborn
child. You stay there for perhaps a year after it’s
born. You learn how to take care of the newborn. The difficulty is that these homes are very
small. Ben: And then send them back into a neighborhood
where eight-year-olds are running around with guns. Prof. Wilson: Exactly. So the… Ben: That’s not a great idea. Prof. Wilson: Therefore, can we expand the
idea of a family shelters that last longer? Can we then convert, as the child grows older,
it into a boarding school where the child goes to school on a residential basis, sees
his mother as often they wants, or father if it has one. But the father and the mother, or typically
the mother, doesn’t live there. I think we could…we’ve had experience in
this country in running all of these institutions for 100 years. We’ve forgotten that experience. And as a result, when somebody reminds us
of this experience, we reach for our gun and fire the orphanage bullet at each other. Ben: Let us wrap this up now. Let me ask you one other question, a final
sort of wrap up. Two parts. First, is there a name for this “Wilson Unified
Field Theory” that we’re talking about? And secondly, how should we go about strengthening
the moral sense, your title of your book? Prof. Wilson: What I would like to call my
view of human nature is “Common Sense.” I mean that in the literal way. It comes from the common sense philosophers
of the 18th century in England and Scotland. It is the philosophy that begins with the
proposition that human nature is, everywhere, essentially the same, that parents love their
children, that children want to conform to the expectations of their parents. And this is only possible if there are supportive
communities and cultures around them that reward responsible child-rearing and hold
people individually accountable for their actions. I think the vast majority of people all over
the globe, whether they read a single book or not, subscribe to this. The difficulty is we are now forcing them
in this country and other countries to raise these children against a new kind of culture,
a culture that is the product of a form of hyper-educationalism. The kind of exaggerated enlightenment that
says essentially, “Bourgeois society is suspect or Philistine. It is not modern. It is not emancipated. It is not advanced.” The culture ought to emancipate the individual. And that tension between common sense and
familism [SP] and the emancipation of the individual is the main struggle of the last
200 years. I think both ought to be in the right balance. But I think the balance has been tipped in
favor of “Do your own thing.” When the children of rich parents do their
own thing, the result usually is some degree of chaos for which dad can afford to pay the
bills. When the children of poor families do their
own thing, no one is there to pick up the pieces, to put their lives back together or
to pay the bills. What children today in poor neighborhoods,
in some cases, are doing is what they have learned from watching spoiled rich kids behave
on television, sitcoms, in rock musicals, and listening to the language they hear among
the intellectual elite. Ben: James Q. Wilson, thank you very much. Prof. Wilson: Thank you, Ben. Ben: And thank you. We enjoy hearing from our audience. Please continue to send your questions and
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