The American Interest
Democracy, Development & the Rule of Law
Published on March 4, 2012
James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012

I never studied with Jim Wilson while getting my degree in the Harvard Government Department, though he was there at the time. My contacts with him came later, when we served together on the President’s Council on Bioethics in the early 2000s, and as fellow members of the Board of Governors of the Rand Graduate School. Jim in addition graciously agreed to serve on the editorial board of The American Interest.   Of course the way I got to really know him was through reading his books, from early ones like City Politics to the later volumes like Crime and Human Nature, which he wrote with Richard Herrnstein, and The Moral Sense. Unlike many narrow-minded political scientists, Jim was very happy to make use of new research coming from the life sciences and to apply it to contemporary social behavior.
Many of the obituaries and remembrances of Jim Wilson have focused on what was probably his most famous article, “Broken Windows,” which he co-authored with criminologist George Kelling in the Atlantic Monthly back in 1982. As many have noted, this article was responsible for the shift in policing that took place in New York City during the 1980s, that laid the groundwork for the city’s subsequent recovery from crime and decay over the following decade. I’ve always thought that it would be a uniquely satisfying experience for an academic to write an article that would actually have a concrete beneficial impact on the lives of people around you, as this one surely did.
The Wilson book that remains my favorite, however, and that I use the most often in teaching, is his 1989 volume Bureaucracy. Wilson argued that people like to blame bureaucrats for the failings of bureaucracies, but that the problem lay more in the nature of the public sector itself and structure of incentives created by the bureaucrats’ political masters. It began by giving three reasons why the public sector could never simply behave like the private sector, to which it is often unfavorably compared.
First, public sector agencies are not allowed to retain earnings, and therefore have no incentive towards economizing costs. A public agency that ends the fiscal year with a surplus because of efficient operations cannot distribute those savings to its managers and employees as incentives, but rather is likely to see its budget cut for the next year on the grounds that it was allocated too much in the first place. This explains the rush to push money out the door at the end of the fiscal year whether the spending is needed or not, and why bureaucracies are so often inefficient.

Second, public agencies are generally not permitted to reallocate factors of production like private companies. Bureaucrats are frequently subject either to civil service rules protecting them, or else backed by powerful unions that oppose firings. Those civil service protections exist, moreover, to prevent the bureaucracy from being used as a source of political patronage as it was during the 19th century.
Finally, and perhaps most important, public agencies must follow goals that are not of their own choosing. Private companies have a single bottom line which is maximization of shareholder returns. Public agencies have multiple mandates that are both confusing and often mutually contradictory. For example, public procurement agencies are expected to buy goods and services based on optimal price and performance, but they are also subject to mandates requiring bids from small-, minority-owned-, and other kinds of businesses, with an almost endless right of recusal that is ultimately driven by Congress. No private procurement officer has to operate under rules like the Federal Acquisitions Regulations. Publicly-owned utilities like the Post Office or Amtrak are expected to recover costs, but are also required to provide universal service, or to serve rural communities–again because someone in Congress demands it. Amtrak could become a very profitable railway if it were allowed to focus its operations just on the Boston-New York-Washington corridor.
Jim Wilson was known as a conservative who cherished limited government in the American tradition. But he also understood that government was needed for all sorts of functions, and that it could do its job better or worse depending on how it was organized and led. Bureaucracy begins with three cases–the German Army at the beginning of World War II, the Texas prison system, and inner-city Atlanta public schools, in which these very different public agencies achieved dramatically better results as a result of the right leadership and approaches to organization. Wilson understood the critical importance of organizational culture as the source of good bureaucratic performance, as opposed to the shifting around of boxes on an org chart that often passes for reform (e.g., the two big reforms of the 2000s, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the reorganization of the intelligence community).
This was all underscored by Jim’s student John DiIulio in a 1994 article entitled “Principled Agents,” which attacked the current tendency to understand organizations using economic models which assume that bureaucrats were self-interested rational agents. DiIulio’s article begins with a description of a prison riot which led a group of retired federal prison officials to jump on airplanes at their own expense to help manage the crisis. This kind of behavior is not the norm in most bureaucracies, but is characteristic of the best ones, and a standard that can be achieved if the bureaucracy builds a strong sense of common identity, and public officials understand that they are serving larger moral purposes.
There are so many other works of Jim Wilson that have enriched our understanding of politics and American government, and it seems almost belittling to pick out only one. He was a man of broad interests, who loved fast cars, scuba diving, and the California coastline. So it is thus with great sadness that we have to mark his passing this week.

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  • Jagannathan Sathyamoorthy

    Thanks, a great insight in running of Public organizations. Rewarding to read.

  • Robert

    I hope your classes dealing with bureaucracy make students familiar with Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law:

  • Robert

    Sorry: this is a better formulation:

    “Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”


  • Luke Lea

    Not sure Atlanta’s inner city public schools are such a good example anymore. They had the incentive all right.

    Wonder what’s happening in Texas?

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  • Susan Marquis

    Thank you, Frank for highlighting Jim Wilson’s book, Bureaucracy. A remarkable book that helps explain why government agencies behave the way they do. As offered by Wilson, public servants, “bureaucrats,” do what they do because of organizational, personal, and professional incentives; the culture of the organization; and, the authority or autonomy of the organization itself. They primarily respond to the task at hand (situational imperative), within the constraints placed on them by the people through laws and regulation. The stronger the culture or sense of mission, the clearer the critical task, and the fewer constraints — the more effective public servants can be carrying out the people’s work. Jim brought a thoughtfulness and understanding to the idea of governance that is usually lost in calls for more or less government. Through this insight and scholarship, James Q. Wilson’s legacy will continue through his students and ours. Regarding Robert’s comment and the Iron Law, you may want to follow up with a reading of Phillip Selznick’s, Leadership and Administration – a critical failure of leadership is when “organizational achievement” (survival, growth) is confounded with institutional success (mission fullfillment).

  • Mark Michael

    I checked the comments to see if the example of the Atlantic public schools was challenged. Yep, Luke Lea, #6:

    “Not sure Atlanta’s inner city public schools are such a good example anymore. They had the incentive all right.”

    If you go to the Wikipedia link, it discusses the huge cheating scandal that was there uncovered recently. Before then, people held Atlanta up as having made great progress in improving their educational achievement scores. Sorry. It was fabricated.

    Not to be a broken record, but simply returning education to the control of the customers – parents/students – is the only solution to our too-expensive, poor quality public school system. The sooner we embark on dismantling the government educational bureaucracies the sooner we can restore some reasonable level of cost-effectiveness to our K-12 public school system.

    My first step would be to phase out the federal Dept. of Education in toto over, say, a 4-year period. During that period, first cut the dollars by 20% and use the remaining 80% to set up a voucher program for K-12 parents to use in private and charter schools. Take the dollars away from the bureaucrats and give it to the parent/taxpayer. (You’d have to repeal all of the federal mandates at the same time. Educrats complain that federal laws dictate 40% of their paperwork but give them less than 10% of their funds. This should be a great deal from them. This would call their bluff!)

    I’d reduce the amount of the voucher program to zero over that 4-year period. It is just “priming the pump” of innovation and creativity: helping jump start the needed alternatives to the entrenched public monopoly. But it should not become just another special interest handout, which it undoubtedly would. So the initial law must include its phaseout. (Okay, okay, Congress can change the law after those 4 years. Nothing is perfect.)

    The dollar amount involved is relatively small as federal departments go. Given our persistent $1.3 trillion federal annual budget deficits, if we don’t have the political will to do this we’ll never do it, I’m afraid. (I’m thinking 2013 and after.)

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  • Lorenz Gude

    I see other readers have beaten me to Pournelle’s Iron Law and the faux achievements of the Atlanta Public Schools, but the achievements of the SEC in failing to prevent the selling of fraudulent mortgage backed securities seems to me to be a pretty juicy example of bureaucratic failure. And the Federales sure nailed that Martha Stewart, but let Bernie Madoff slide – that means they are batting .500, right?

  • Paul Swartz

    James Q. Wilson provides the answer to the
    ” financial cliff” looming under us.
    In American Government, page 38 he states:
    “Third,the federal government,unlike the states,managed the currency,and thus could print more money whenever it needed it.(Technically,it borrowed this money,and of course it paid interest on what it had borrowed,but it was under no obligation to pay it all back because,as a practical matter,it had borrowed from itself.)”
    And,”…the proposition that when it needed money,it would print it.”
    So since the Federal government is”under no
    obligation to pay it back” simply don’t pay it back.
    Of course if the government had the power and
    right to create money for all of it’s expenditures, why is it in debt?