Glenn Loury on the Pernicious Influence of James Q. Wilson

“Calling a spade a spade turns out not to be a social policy,” Loury says. More:

Call me unforgiving, but I can still remember sitting at Jim and Roberta Wilson’s dinner table in Malibu, California in January 1993 listening to Murray explain, much to my consternation and with Jim’s silent acquiescence, that social inequality is inevitable because “dull” parents are simply less effective at child-rearing than “bright” ones. (I rejected then, and still do, Murray and Herrnstein’s claim that profound social disparities are due mainly to variation in innate individual traits that cannot be remedied via social policy.) Neither can Glenn Loury in 2012 ignore what he failed to see in 1983: that Wilson and Herrnstein’s Crime and Human Nature—a book that sets out to lay bare the underlying bio-genetic, somatic, and psychological determinants of individuals’ criminal behavior—is an enterprise of dubious scientific value. The behavioral theories of social control that Wilson spawned—see, for instance, his 1983 Atlantic Monthly piece, “Raising Kids” (not unlike training pets, as it happens)—and the pop–social psychology salesmanship of his and George Kelling’s so-called “theory” about broken windows is a long way from rocket science, or even good social science. This work looks more like narrative in the service of rationalizing and justifying hierarchy, subordination, coercion, and control. In short, it smacks of highbrow, reactionary journalism.

But, unlike most tabloid scribblers, Wilson’s writings had a massive effect. The broken windows argument—by cracking down on minor offenses, the police can prevent the perception of disorder that leads to more serious crimes—has influenced urban law enforcement strategists throughout the nation. Even so, as scholarly critics across the ideological spectrum have noted, there is little evidence beyond the anecdotal to show that such “quality of life” policing actually leads to lower crime rates. When I consider the impact of his ideas, I can’t help but think about the millions of folks being hassled even as we speak by coercive state agents who are acting on some Wilsonian theory recommending stop-and-frisk policing.

Neither can I overlook the reinforcement of subliminal racial stigmata associated with the institutions of confinement, surveillance, and patrol that Americans have embraced over the past two generations under the watchful and approving gaze of Professor Wilson.

via Boston Review — Glenn C. Loury: Much To Answer For (James Q. Wilson).

5 thoughts on “Glenn Loury on the Pernicious Influence of James Q. Wilson”

  1. Cool. Loury wears his anti State-coercion hat when it comes to stop and frisk but gives less than half a shit when it comes to affirmative action.

  2. “Subliminal racial stigmata” is perhaps too vivid a metaphor for this ex-Catholic to handle.

  3. I live in a neighborhood of Philadelphia with a lot of black people, a fair amount of crime, a lot of litter and foul language and hip-hop blasting at 90db out of pimped-out Escalades with gold-anodised trim, smoked windows and rims (which the rest of us will end up paying for by way of subsidizing the owner’s retirement and medical that they didn’t save for), and I have to say, I truly don’t give a shit for ivory-tower academic theories about how strict law enforcement doesn’t lead to better places. The police hassle far too few people around here, not far too many. Let Loury come and live in unpleasant inner-city neighborhoods for a while and see what he thinks then. But he won’t consider that a requirement for anything, much less authority on the subject.

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