James Q. Wilson is one of the foremost authorities on crime and bureaucracy--two seemingly disparate topics that most Reason readers will recognize as intimately connected. As the author or editor of books such as The Moral Sense and The Politics of Regulation, Wilson has added immensely to our understanding of complex social structures and individual behavior. He has also shaped public policy by serving on a number of national commissions, such as the White House Task Force on Crime (1966) and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (1985-1991).
Although Wilson, the James Collins Professor of Management at UCLA, is no libertarian--resolutely against drug legalization, he informed our interviewers that he has "a mutual non-aggression pact" with Reason on the topic--his work is characterized by an emphasis on issues such as the appropriate scope of government, the baleful effects of centralized social engineering, and the primacy of individual responsibility and autonomy.
Perhaps the single most remarkable attribute of Wilson's work is its sense of engagement with an intensely real world populated by living, breathing individuals. Even though he is an "expert" on human behavior and social organization, he admits to no glib answers or sweeping theories. As he writes in Crime, the new essay collection he edited with Joan Petersilia, "We offer no magic bullet that will produce safe streets or decent people. What needs to be done is difficult, complex, and costly, and the gains will be deferred and moderate. But they may be all the more lasting because they have been achieved by linking scientific knowledge and practical wisdom to the interests of both citizens and public officials."
Reason Foundation Privatization Center Director William D. Eggers and Policy Analyst John O'Leary interviewed Wilson at his UCLA office.
Reason: For the first time since the Eisenhower administration, Republicans control both houses of Congress. House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich has called the mid-term elections a victory over "bigger government, redistributionist economics, and bureaucracies deciding how you should spend your money." Can the GOP really reduce the scope of federal government?
Wilson: That is clearly their sincere intention, especially with respect to the House leadership. But I don't think they can diminish the scope of the federal government in a significant way unless they first confront the collective choice problem. And that consists of the following: Individual voters want lower taxes, no deficit, and high levels of spending on a variety of entitlement and other programs.
The voters have not had to confront the inconsistency of those preferences. When that inconsistency was pointed out to voters during the Reagan administration, they were assured that the elimination of waste, fraud, and abuse would solve that problem. It will not.
In the long run, however, if the Republican leadership succeeds in passing a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and permitting a line-item veto, they will set in motion events that may force those hard choices. It's possible they will succeed in attaining some reduction. But no one has yet succeeded in reducing the size or scope of the federal government. Even the Reagan-era cuts turned out, in retrospect, to be quite modest and generally short-lived.
Reason: Last year, Al Gore's National Performance Review was touted as "revolutionary" by the White House. You yourself have called it, "the best White House statement I have ever read about what citizens really want from government and how, in theory, it can be delivered." What's the catch?
Wilson: The catch is we don't know how to convert theory into practice. If we want to answer that question seriously, we have to--among other things--ask whether any government agency, no matter how inspired it may be, can deliver its service the way citizens want it.
The first part of my sentence that you quoted said, "This report, unlike all the others I've read, asks itself: How can I be of better service to people who want things from government or who are being regulated by government?" All previous efforts talked about inefficiency or increasing presidential power. The Gore report does offer some ideas drawn from business literature about how in theory you do this. In theory, you could give lower-ranking authorities the power to make more discretionary decisions. An example: If you know it's within the law and you're sure it's the honest thing to do, then just do it. In theory, that's a wonderful idea. Who could object to that? It's like saying, in theory, we know how to design good families--caring and enforcing rules that take the best interest of the child into account. The question is, How do you go from theory to practice? I'm skeptical of the overall theory about institutionalizing the spirit of customer service that exists in the private sector because government represents a sovereign power, not a competing provider.
In our system of government, there have hardly been any cases where somebody wins the struggle for power. Rather, like a peace treaty, the legislation, the court rulings, and administrative procedures are negotiated among the combatants in a way that everybody is given a piece of the action.
Some people suggest that the problem is the separation of powers. If you had a parliamentary system, the struggle for power would not result in such complex peace treaties that empower so many different people to pursue so many contradictory aims.
This is true, up to a point. The question is, Do you want a system of government that has the power to do this? When you give this power to government, government expands much faster. But, on the other hand, it probably regulates with a lighter hand. Our system of government has made the rate of government growth slower than parliamentary systems. The tax level is lower than in most other nations, but we do regulate with a heavier hand. Other tradeoffs also exist, such as: To what extent do you want the government to be open to external investigation, to have a Whitewater or Watergate?
I confess that I prefer the American version of that tradeoff. I would rather have a slower rate of government growth even though I know by so doing I will pay a high price in a few ways. I will have an administrative system where there is no way to extricate red tape. I know that once the government ever manages to start doing something, it will be at least as hard to change that here as it is abroad.