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Beyond Broken Windows—A Commentary by Peter H. Schuck

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on March 10, 2012.

Beyond Broken Windows
By Peter H. Schuck

JAMES Q. WILSON, who died last week at the age of 80, was unquestionably the pre-eminent political scientist of the last 50 years. Curiously, the commentary surrounding his death has largely focused on his justly famous “broken windows” theory — and to a lesser extent, his penetrating 1993 book, “The Moral Sense” — yet these works are only a small part of his extraordinary contribution to sound thinking about government, politics and public policy.

Even more important, perhaps, are his groundbreaking analyses — first elucidated when he was just 30 — of the most fundamental features of political behavior, whether by parties, bureaucracies, regulatory agencies or other organizations.

Unlike his work on law enforcement and other specific policies, these analyses are structural; they apply, other things being equal, to all public policies and all political acts. Just as a powerful microscope illuminates the biological world, Mr. Wilson’s writings provide enormous insight into how the political world works.

In the field of social science, where good theories generating important testable predictions are exceptionally rare, no one else has come close to matching his achievements.

In this work, Mr. Wilson showed that all organizations — political parties, social clubs, environmental groups, companies and regulatory agencies — share one essential trait: They must attract the resources necessary to achieve their goals and survive (he called this “organizational maintenance”) by offering incentives or inducements to join and support them.

He distinguished three types of incentives — solidary (that is, incentives that promote solidarity), material and purposive — and he theorized that the specific type of incentive distributed by a particular group both shapes and constrains its behavior and effectiveness.

Thus, the Junior League provides solidary incentives by emphasizing the social status of and personal interactions among its members, while companies provide material incentives — i.e., money and other economic value — which buy them more tactical flexibility.

In contrast, the Sierra Club’s incentives are purposive, attracting members through its programmatic and visionary ideals. But such incentives also constrain purposive groups, which may lose support if they compromise those ideals by being too pragmatic.

In two early books, Mr. Wilson deployed this theory, along with intensive fieldwork, to show how such incentives help explain — and predict — the behavior of diverse political organizations.

In his 1960 book, “Negro Politics,” he compared two diverse styles of politics of the most prominent black congressmen of the day, William Dawson and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Mr. Dawson, loyal to Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, was a classic machine politician who attracted low-income voters by distributing material favors controlled by the machine — jobs, connections, economic benefits — while assiduously avoiding more controversial, policy-oriented appeals that might divide his constituency and displease ideologically diverse colleagues.

Mr. Powell, from New York City, was the exact opposite: a flamboyant firebrand, he often played the race card to win re-election but was isolated in Congress and accomplished little programmatically.

Mr. Wilson’s analysis of the relationship between different organizational-political styles and outcomes helps explain, among other things, the challenges that minority politicians everywhere face today.

Two years later, in “The Amateur Democrat,” Mr. Wilson compared the disparate organizational strategies of Democratic political clubs in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. The Chicago clubs were essentially cogs in Mayor Daley’s materialistic machine. The New York clubs were divided between organizational regulars and insurgent reformers — groups driven (and riven) by different incentive systems in a city whose politics, unlike Chicago’s, could not centralize power enough to control policy outcomes.

The political style of the Los Angeles clubs was the most striking, as it prefigured a new kind of politics that has largely defined the Democratic Party ever since: it elevated the intra-party influence of “amateurs” over professional politicians, demanded ethnic and gender balance in internal party affairs, mistrusted central leadership and (until recently) avoided broad coalition building with business interests. This more ideological, protest-type mode (so evident in today’s Republican Party as well) made it very difficult for them to unify and aggregate the power needed to govern effectively in a decentralized political system like ours.

Mr. Wilson later extended these theories to bureaucracy and regulation. In his 1989 work, “Bureaucracy,” he drew on numerous examples to show how bureaucracy is not one thing but many things, and that different agencies must deploy different incentive and task structures, which in turn explain a great deal of how they work, including how they define and pursue their goals, bargain with other groups, recruit expertise and often fail.

Likewise, in his 1980 book, “The Politics of Regulation,” he developed a new political taxonomy of regulation linked to a theory of how regulators build political support and manage their organizational constraints. This was more than a theory; he used it to predict, with stunning accuracy, how agencies would act in different situations.

Most impressive, however, is how Mr. Wilson succeeded in using these rigorously academic approaches to educate mass audiences, putting him in a small pantheon of public intellectuals with his friends Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Irving Kristol. In today’s fraught times, we need his wisdom more than ever.

Peter H. Schuck, a professor of law at Yale and a visiting professor at Fordham, is a co-editor, with James Q. Wilson, of “Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation.”