No Easy Answers: An Interview with James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson on bureaucracy, crime, and community


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.

I'm not sure how important this last point is because, if you ask which government in the world has been the boldest in the last 15 years in reconsidering the past courses of action, the United States has to be at the top of the list. We started the move toward cutting taxes and we started the effort to begin deregulation. Then again, you can say other countries have provided, for example, more parental choice in schooling.

Reason: You have criticized the Gore report for only recommending the elimination of a few programs. What things does government do now that it shouldn't be doing at all? Is the failure to ask this question—what should government do?—the main weakness of reinventing government?

Wilson: Yes, that is the biggest weakness of the reinventing government movement and of virtually every other effort to think about the problems of government. I don't want to say that Mr. Gore has failed more conspicuously than other people, but he fails in precisely the same way.

Where should we look for things that government ought not to be doing? At the national level, I would begin with Social Security. We can no longer tolerate a governmental system which guarantees that people of relatively young age will be impoverished in order to support people of relatively old age, a system where you have almost no chance of earning a positive rate of return on your Social Security payments. We know that there are systems—not only in the private sector in this country but also in nationally privatized systems in places such as Chile and Singapore—where you can have better retirement benefits without taxing the young to pay for the old.

Medicare and Medicaid are close seconds in answer to your question. I believe we ought to subsidize some health care for the poor, but Medicare subsidizes everyone's health care. In terms of other functions, we are making a mistake about insisting on a public school monopoly.

Reason: Is the answer to devolve federal government activity to the state and local levels?

Wilson: I can give a theoretical answer to that question, but the theory has nothing to do with how those decisions get made. On economic grounds, you can say that the federal government has a responsibility for only those problems that cannot be handled at the state and local level, such as issues dealt with by the State Department. You have to have certain environmental questions dealt with at the federal level and also income redistribution, if that is something you favor.

But I don't think there is much hope for the idea of devolving authority. Once we have sold the idea (which we didn't succeed in selling until 1965) that the federal government is responsible for everything, the idea of state and local control doesn't make political sense. I'm not very optimistic about devolving control. It is just too easy for Congress to pass a law that imposes costs on others—unfunded mandates, etc. It is even difficult to define what an unfunded mandate is. If a radical devolution of powers was possible, it would have been done before. The assumption of states' rights is gone. There's no support for it in the Supreme Court and there's no support for it in public opinion.

Reason: Are you concerned that the crime bill federalizes law enforcement?

Wilson: I am indeed. I have a lot of trouble with the federal government asserting that it now has authority over enforcement of criminal issues. That's a big mistake.

I like building more prisons. I like the drug courts. I think the most interesting aspect of the bill is one that hasn't been talked about, and that's the ban on semi-automatic pistols whose magazines have more than 10 rounds. That would, in effect, make it illegal for Americans to buy virtually any semi-automatic pistol on the market.

This includes Barettas, Glocks, Colts, and Brownings, all of which have magazines ranging from 12 to 16 rounds. Those guns will all become illegal to manufacture. Nobody has even mentioned that. They talk as though the debate is on assault weapons. I don't care if they ban AR-15s and AK-47s because I'm absolutely confident that there's no way Congress will move much beyond that. I don't buy the National Rifle Association's argument that this puts the camel's nose under the tent. There is no way the American public will sit still for the banning of or putting any significant restrictions on the kinds of guns they want. The ban is mostly symbolic arm waving, apart from the magazine issue, which is why I am amazed that no one has ever talked about it. This is as close to a ban on a certain kind of handgun as we've even considered. Doubtless, manufacturers can alter their models so that they hold no more than 10 rounds, but that's rather silly.

Reason: What about the funds for more police?

Wilson: Well, first of all, the much-discussed 100,000 cops are nowhere mentioned in the bill. The bill calls for a series of appropriations scaled over a certain period. That money would permit you, making certain assumptions, perhaps to get up to 100,000 five or six years from now. Possibly. It depends on how much you think it costs to put a cop on the street, and I think it costs a lot more than they think. They are considering only salary, when in fact you have training, cars, equipment, and administrative support. Moreover, the cities have to pay part of the price tag, and some cities are not going to do it.

Then half [of the cops] are reserved for cities under 150,000. What that means is that we'll have federally funded cops in places like Bangor, Maine, and Walnut Grove, California. So now we're down to 50,000 cops—again, possibly—to spread around to cities with over 150,000. Well, every state and every congressional district has to get some. There will be some margin to reward those states, such as California, that Mr. Clinton needs to get reelected.

In the end, do you know how many cops Los Angeles might get, if all the assumptions break favorably? Maybe 500? Now, Los Angeles could certainly use 500 more police officers. But this is a clumsy and misleading way to get them, because in five years their pay has to come out of the local taxpayers. Either that, or the federal government is going to say, "Well, we will continue the funding but only on condition that you follow these 97 federal guidelines," which I think is absolute mischief. I remember during debates for the federal aid to education act, supporters said federal money wouldn't lead to federal control of schools. Of course it did. It brought a boat load of paperwork, and this will too.

Reason: It must strike you as ironic that even as the crime bill gives the federal government more control over local police, the bill itself pays lip service to your notion of "community-based policing."

Wilson: Community-based policing has now come to mean everything. It's a slogan. It has come to mean so many different things that people who endorse it, such as the Congress of the United States, do not know what they are talking about. In the crime bill, Congress has said that, "Community policing works." I'm an advocate of it and I don't know whether it works. We have no carefully evaluated, long-term experience with it yet in any big city, with the possible exception of Houston, that tells us whether community-based policing "works."

Reason: What do you mean by "community-based policing"?

Wilson: I mean that the function of the police is to solve problems that have law-enforcement consequences in a way that is based on a genuine partnership with the neighborhood in both the venting of the problem and the discussion of the solution. Say the problem is drug dealers, or teenage gangs, or graffiti. Identifying those as problems and discussing solutions for them will be a collaborative effort. The police will do this proactively and will not wait simply to respond to a 911 call.

Reason: What kinds of proactive policing are you talking about?

Wilson: All sorts of things. You can enforce truancy laws, you can enforce a whole list of things: curfew laws, revoke a landlord's building occupancy permit, etc. The technique that police use—within broad limits—is almost irrelevant to the argument. The point is that it is to be proactive, problem-oriented, and neighborhood-based.

That still leaves a lot of questions. In what kind of neighborhoods can you have this kind of partnership? We know they now exist in affluent communities where the police and neighborhoods talk all the time. But how far down in the social structure can you go and still have that kind of effective partnership that will not either be destroyed by the absence of any social structure or corrupted by ideologues in the neighborhoods who will use this as a way of gaining and keeping power?

Reason: The Republicans are talking about passing their own crime bill in early 1995. Do you think it will counterbalance the weaker aspects of the current crime bill?

Wilson: First, most of the things that are in the current crime law as enacted are meaningless unless there are appropriations to fund them. The Republicans need do nothing more than block the appropriations for undesirable or untested programs. They do not need to repeal or amend the bill.

The larger question, however, is whether there is anything that the federal government can do at all to make a significant impact on the crime problem. I'm very skeptical of that. The Republicans may pass a crime bill that would meet with general approval—that might, indeed, meet with my approval. But it would not be a crime-reduction bill. It would be a justice-enhancing bill.

By that, I mean it would be a bill that reduces the extent to which the current system perpetuates injustices by, for example, allowing convicted prisoners to make endless and costly appeals. Or by penalizing police officers who make an honest mistake in making a search or conducting an interrogation in ways that allow the guilty party to go free. There is some reason to think that Congress can correct some of those injustices.

But whatever they do will have next to no effect on the crime rate. Still, it's worth doing nonetheless, because it would make people feel that the system now strikes a more reasonable balance between the rights of the accused and the rights of society.

Reason: As a society, how do we minimize crime?

Wilson: We have two kinds of crime problems. The first crime problem is common to every industrialized nation in the world, from the United States to France, Italy, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and even Switzerland: They all have high and rising rates of property crime and some increases in the rates of violent crime. I believe that the high rates of property crime (and some of the increase in violent crime) are part of the price you pay for freedom.

Once you emancipate people from strings, once you give them freedom to prosper, you're going to empower them to do all sorts of things ranging from the spectacularly good to the heinously bad. And the ability of public figures, or families, or village life, or customs, or tradition to restrain people is going to be powerfully degraded. You cannot change that without reimposing economic controls. Our friends in China and Singapore believe that you can have economic freedom and advantages without paying the social price. I don't think they are right.

Reason: Would you favor giving up some freedom, some affluence, in exchange for lower crime rates?

Wilson: I would certainly give up some freedom in exchange for that. I certainly am willing to give the police more power to stop and question people, just as I am willing to have metal detectors at airports. I don't like it, but there's a great benefit and the inconvenience to the average person is not that great. But I don't think giving up some freedom will produce much of a gain.

Other countries experiencing higher rates of property crime than we do already give their police more power. You don't want to be arrested by the police in Stockholm or London. They are not bound by the Miranda rules.

Reason: Wouldn't increasing police power to conduct pat-down searches of individuals exacerbate antagonisms between communities and the police, especially in the lower-income and minority areas likely to be searched more frequently?

Wilson: Yes. It's a problem of reconciling an imperfect empirical generalization with standards of fair play. The imperfect empirical generalization is that young blacks—and to some extent young Latinos—commit a disproportional share of crimes, so they will get disproportionately stopped for searches. However, they may get stopped to a greater degree than they are actually over-represented in crime statistics. It's that excess that creates the antagonism.

That seems to me the best argument for community-based policing. If you get the police sufficiently close to the neighborhoods, then the neighborhoods will consult the police and tell them who the bad apples are. Blacks will still be stopped more frequently than somebody who lives in San Marino [a wealthy WASP Los Angeles suburb], but it will not be this excessive disproportion because the police will have calibrated distinctions among individuals based on local lore and local information. That's the theory. We don't know yet whether or not it will work.

Reason: While community-based policing might work—in fact, while it might already be informally at work—in affluent neighborhoods, what can be done for those areas that are almost totally overwhelmed by street crime?

Wilson: I said earlier that there are two crime problems. Now you're talking about the second. You're talking about the crime problem that grows out of the absolute destruction of communities. These are communities where people are growing up absent any social norms. Among industrialized nations, this is a distinctly American problem, although it also exists in backward nations and developing nations.

There has always been some disorganized lower class—we used to call it skid row. Now, of course, we have whole residential areas that are skid rows. There is not an inherent dynamic in human nature that makes it necessary for hundreds of thousands of people—as opposed to thousands—to live in totally disorganized communities. Nothing has changed in human nature in the past 40 years that should have produced this. What I think has happened is that a downward cycle of neighborhood decay has gotten to the point where the situation won't improve as long as people stay there. If you take people out of those neighborhoods and put them elsewhere, they might well have a chance at a decent life.

So how do you take them out? I think there are a lot of alternatives that we haven't thought of. One, of course, is the Section 8 [federal housing] voucher. Give them a voucher and let them find housing somewhere else. I think there's a lot of merit in that. I've always been in favor of rent vouchers. But it also creates a problem because if you just move them out the way they are now, no neighborhood would want to take them. Who wants a crack addict with three illegitimate kids? That's not an adequate solution. It's part of a solution.

I've been toying around with this idea in which young mothers who want welfare would be required to live in group homes. These could be located physically very near where the mother is now living. But you would still be taking them out of the neighborhood in the sense that no drugs would come in and no drugs would come out, including alcohol. And the children and the mothers would be under the supervision of responsible adults.

The problems of our urban areas are rooted in the failure of parents to raise decent children. Admittedly, it is a failure partially excused by the horrifying conditions under which these children must be raised. But these horrifying conditions themselves reflect a collapse of family structure from the prior generation.

I was recently arguing about this question with someone who claimed that society had let down these teenagers. I said, "No, society hasn't let them down. Their parents have let them down." But, she rejoined, even if the parents let them down, isn't it the case that they have to grow up in such a terrible environment that it would take a truly heroic parent to do much better?

There are two answers to that. One is that their own parents are at fault because they put themselves in the situation in which they had very little competence to raise a child. Second, it is the widespread failure of other parents that is now making the environment so threatening for decent parents. It is a downward spiral that reveals how fragile civilization is and how quickly we return to savagery.

I am not denying that there are some economic factors, but they aren't the ones that people talk about. It is not the unemployment rate and it is not a problem that can be solved by creating jobs. It is a problem created when children grow up and learn in an environment in which they never a see a married man working for a living at a legitimate job and supporting his family. These children learn, since they have never seen such behavior, that it isn't an available alternative, or if it is, it's an undesirable one. They see fear, they see drug use, they see gangsterism, they see disorganization. This is what they learn.

Reason: What has created the widespread inability of parents to raise children?

Wilson: I wish we knew the answer. It wasn't happening at all until the late '60s, so the phenomenon has only been around for 25 years. In reality, it has only gotten dramatically worse in the last 10 years.

Several items play a role. I think Charles Murray is correct that if the welfare options were not there, fewer people would be able to support themselves in this lifestyle, and therefore fewer people would lead such a lifestyle. My only reservation is that I do not think that any politically feasible change in the monetary value of the welfare package of benefits would alter the rate at which people take advantage of it. It is a kind of safety net, and you can raise or lower the safety net a little bit and it won't make any difference. Now, Charles Murray's response to that statement would be to say, "Yes, and that's why the safety net has to be totally abolished." But that's not going to happen.

I think Myron Magnet is correct in his claim that underclass culture is a dialect of upper-class culture, with an emphasis on hedonism and personal satisfaction and value relativism. This cultural defect is something which gets magnified and endorses certain kinds of behavior. The media are partly responsible, but not because there is violence on TV. I think the impact of such depictions of violence probably has very little to do with behavior. I think television's main effect has to do with socialization. Viewers are absorbed in a world of self-expression, compulsiveness, immediate gratification—that's what TV gives you.

I do think the problem is sufficiently serious so that no modest interventions will make a difference, and no purely economic modification will make a big difference. That's why I think we really have to alter, fundamentally, the way that lots of these children grow up from ages one to 12.

Reason: Hence, your endorsement of a return to public orphanages.

Wilson: You begin with the rule that the goal of our public policy is to protect the children. We're not particularly interested in whether the mothers work or not, not interested in whether they'll get 10 percent less money or 10 percent more money. For many of these children, the only thing that will work is if they are raised in radically different settings.

This means they are either raised by somebody else or they are raised by their own mother but in an environment in which the mother herself is taught how to be a mother and the child is given a decent environment. For the most at-risk children, I suggest pooling welfare checks and housing allowances in a way that will make economically feasible group shelters, either run by government or private organizations. Sen. [Bill] Bradley [D-N.J.] is thinking about introducing a bill that would authorize it. Wisconsin's Gov. Tommy Thompson is likely to make it a main component of his reforms.

Reason: Isn't this paternalism in the extreme? In the past, you have written that the goal of public policy should be to reinforce the obligation of parents to raise their children. But wouldn't you be letting parents avoid that responsibility by allowing them to place their children in orphanages and group homes?

Wilson: Yes, it is paternalism. That is exactly what it is. What these children lack is paternalism. That's a very good way to put it. And it is a fair criticism to say it will let some parents off the hook. But for some people I think that's exactly right. I've increasingly come to the view that, for some children, we have to accept the fact that their parents will slough off their responsibility. We also have to reinforce the legal and cultural sanctions that support the maintenance of those responsibilities, but we have to face the fact that in some cases these cultural reinforcements will not work.

A 17-year-old girl who is on crack cocaine cannot be taught responsibility. It's impossible. We don't have the faintest idea how to do that. There are a lot of 15- and 16-year-old girls who have children who are not on crack cocaine, and who would like to be decent mothers. Most of these can be decent mothers, provided they're put in an environment where they're taught how to be decent mothers and protected from those influences outside that make it impossible to be decent mothers. That's why I support pooling the welfare checks into group shelters where mother and child would live together. This could help the child. Remember that we know how to raise babies. This is not a problem. Society has spent 50,000 years learning that. Putting a mother in a group shelter doesn't absolve her of her responsibilities. It says, "If you want help raising your baby, you've got to go to this shelter." Most of these mothers love their babies. They don't want to abandon them.

And it would be voluntary in the sense that, if you want public support, that's the way you get it. You don't have to go there. But you won't get any money and you won't get any housing units.

Reason: What can be done to prevent the situation in the first place?

Wilson: The first step to doing that is reducing illegitimacy. We don't know how to reduce illegitimacy. My idea is not to end welfare for 15-year-old girls. You simply say that you can't get the welfare unless you give up the opportunity to have an independent household. This would make it much less attractive for some people.

But for other people, the group homes will be very attractive. Better than the life they now lead. I am not asserting that this proposal will reduce illegitimacy dramatically. I'm saying that I think it will give the children that are the fruits of these illicit unions a better start, and that by giving them a better start and keeping them off the mean streets for five or 10 years, they will be less likely to have illegitimate children of their own. I'm betting that it's a successful second-generation strategy to reduce illegitimacy by training a generation of children that illegitimacy is morally unacceptable. Among the messages being delivered is that it's wrong.

Do I know if any of this will work? No. But it's something that can be assessed.

Reason: You've advocated using nonprofit organizations to deliver these services. Won't this turn once-independent nonprofits into virtual appendages of the state?

Wilson: The key to this question has to do with the terms and contract. It makes sense to use private contractors and nonprofits if the contracts are performance-based. The government says, "Look, we want the following outcome. If you think you can achieve that outcome at the price we're willing to pay, we'll give you a contract." A payoff follows performance.

There are real difficulties, though, with quantifying performance and terms of a contract. If I knew the answer I'd be able to retire. I'm pessimistic that much can be done about the crime problem for exactly this reason. We all know how to evaluate successful families. We do it all the time. We look at our neighbors and say the Joneses are a good family and the Smiths are doing terrible. That's a global judgment based on our perception of a wide range of factors—how the kids behave, how often the parents fight. The difficulty is putting that into contractual language.

Reason: Can we go back to an America where aid is primarily based on true voluntary self-help?

Wilson: We need to use government because there are simply too many children around for private charities to do the job. I'm trying to think of the least harmful way to structure this, but unfortunately I cannot think of a way of doing it without a good deal of public money.

We can't go back. The kinds of problems we are talking about are of an order of magnitude different even in my lifetime. We once had skid rows, and the Salvation Army took care of skid row. And that was a terrific arrangement. If that were our problem today, I would be in favor of a similar arrangement. But now we have 50,000 to 100,000 crack babies being born every year. We have millions of illegitimate children. This is a totally new phenomenon, both here and abroad. I don't see how we can cope with these problems with the resources available in the private sector. I don't think that by having these relationships between government and private agencies, we destroy the spirit of voluntarism. I think the spirit of voluntarism is as strong as it has ever been.

Reason: What is government in America going to look like in the next century?

Wilson: It's going to be bigger, more complicated, more burdensome, and more costly. No matter what point in human history you ask that question, the answer is always the same. Government gets bigger. In the United States, however, I think we may be more adept at minimizing those burdens in part because of our constitutional system, which makes it fairly easy for people to contest a burden.

I'm more optimistic about the long-term prognosis here than in Sweden or England or Germany. The changes in local government—state-level tax cuts, privatization, downsizing—are all wonderful things. They are examples of the virtues of our system of government. If the central government ran our local governments, there wouldn't be any privatizing, there wouldn't be any cutting back. That's because local governments must stand on their own fiscal feet and be responsible to the taxpayers. I think these good things will continue to happen unless the federal government finally persuades us to allow it to fund local operations.