by Yuval Levin
America owes an enormous debt to James Q. Wilson, and it’s more than the obvious debt. Clearly we owe him a lot for the ideas he proposed that got enacted into enormously successful public policies—especially in the fight to save our cities from crime, but in other arenas as well. But more than that, Wilson taught several generations of political scientists and scholars of administration how to think about public policy. Not only what he did but how he did it through his long career was brilliant and innovative, and anyone who thinks about policy for a living today has learned from him—whether they know it or not.
A big part of the reason for Wilson’s success in changing how we think was the exceptional clarity and elegance of his writing. He wrote great books, but he was especially a writer of great essays—truly a master of the form. Many of the best ones, especially on matters of policy, appeared in the pages of The Public Interest through the years. Wilson first appeared in the PI’s second issue, in the winter of 1966, and he wrote no fewer than 41 essays in the course of the magazine’s 40 years.
National Affairs, which seeks to follow in the footsteps of The Public Interest (knowing that can never be more than a mere aspiration) and houses the online archive of the PI’s four decades of issues, has now made all of Wilson’s contributions to the PI (and his one National Affairs essay, from our own second issue) available in one place. The sheer breadth of subjects he took up is a tribute to Wilson’s capacious mind, and the depth of these essays is an extraordinary thing to behold.
Many who knew Wilson far better than I did will have much more to say about his character, his good humor, and his charm than I could in the coming days, but I can’t help but close with a personal note. I first met Jim in 2001, when he was a member of George W. Bush’s council on bioethics and I served on the council’s staff. But I really got to know him in the course of launching and running National Affairs over the past few years. He served as a member of our publication committee, and even donated a bit of money early on to show his support, and he was enormously helpful at every turn—always ready to offer advice, to recommend a writer, or to suggest a subject we ought to take up. He would call me after pretty much each issue with some comment or other—he especially got a kick out of seeing good work by young academics he hadn’t heard of before (he would always try to guess which of his friends had been their teachers, often correctly).
Jim was frank and direct, but modest too. He was always cheerful, and he counseled optimism and believed that problems could be solved. He did more than that: He showed how problems could be solved. Our country was lucky to have him, and all who got to know him were luckier still.