Today politics “is about nearly everything”

Political scientist James Q. Wilson has died.  Among his many contributions was an article on “Broken Windows”–observing that if a broken window in a building doesn’t get fixed, soon all the windows will be broken, an example of how social order must be established in small things so as to create social order in big things–a theory that led to new methods of police work that, famously, caused the crime rate in New York City to drop dramatically.

George Will sums up some of his other insights:

New Deal liberalism, Wilson said, was concerned with who got what, when, where and how; since the 1960s, liberalism has been concerned with who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where and who feels how: “Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything.” Until the 1960s, “the chief issue in any congressional argument over new policies was whether it was legitimate for the federal government to do something at all.” But since the “legitimacy barrier” fell, “no program is any longer ‘new’ — it is seen, rather, as an extension, a modification, or an enlargement of something the government is already doing.”

The normal dynamic of politics, Wilson warned, is a process of addition, candidates promising to add to government’s menu of benefits. Hence today’s problem of collective choice: Can Washington, acknowledging no limit to its scope and responding to clamorous factions that proliferate because of its hyperactivity, make difficult choices? With government no longer constrained by either the old constitutional understanding of its limits or by the old stigma against deficit spending, hard choices can be deferred, and are.

Try, he wrote, to think “of a human want or difficulty that is not now defined as a ‘public policy problem.’ ” The defining is done by elites to whose ideas the political system has become so open that changes of policy often result not from changes of public opinion but from changes in the way elites think. Liberal elites define problems as amenable to government engineering of new social structures. Conservative elites emphasize the cultural roots of many problems and hence their intractability.

America, Wilson said, increasingly faces “problems that do not seem to respond, or to respond enough, to changes in incentives.” This is because culture is often determinative, is harder to change than incentives and impedes individuals’ abilities to respond to incentives. . . .

Wilson warned that we should be careful about what we think we are, lest we become that. Human nature, he said, is not infinitely plastic; we cannot be socialized to accept anything. We do not recoil from Auschwitz only because our culture has so disposed us. Children, Wilson thought, are intuitive moralists, but instincts founded in nature must be nurtured in families. The fact that much of modern life, from family disintegration to scabrous entertainment, is shocking is evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked. And the highest purpose of politics is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that nurtures rather than weakens the promptings of the moral sense.

via James Q. Wilson: America’s prophet – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Michael B.

    “a theory that led to new methods of police work that, famously, caused the crime rate in New York City to drop dramatically.”

    On a side-note, have you ever read the book Freakonomics? The author makes the point that drop in crime rate was linked to the high abortion rate — put more simply, the criminals were never born. It’s an interesting read.

  • Michael B.

    “a theory that led to new methods of police work that, famously, caused the crime rate in New York City to drop dramatically.”

    On a side-note, have you ever read the book Freakonomics? The author makes the point that drop in crime rate was linked to the high abortion rate — put more simply, the criminals were never born. It’s an interesting read.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    This may sound extreme, but in one sense it’s the state supplanting God in terms of authority. There seems to be a strong connection between a rejection of God/religion, and an embracing of a larger, broader, more powerful government.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    This may sound extreme, but in one sense it’s the state supplanting God in terms of authority. There seems to be a strong connection between a rejection of God/religion, and an embracing of a larger, broader, more powerful government.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Michael B,

    Generally I just ignore your posts – but beyond misreading Freakonomics – that point doesn’t even begin to hold water. During the time of the dramatic drop in crime in New York City – the population of NYC grew at a healthy rate – so there was a lot of migration to NYC and lots of babies were still being born (even post Roe v. Wade) and they weren’t all born to the upper crust.

    Also, “the criminals” (as you put it) that were aborted were disproportionately of a certain racial makeup (African-American). Are you suggesting that this is a good thing? This has echoes of the kind of eugenic thinking (Margaret Sanger-style) that undergirds the entire abortion regime.

    You may be thinking you are making an interesting observation, but you are really giving voice to a kind of thinking that discounts the obvious truth in favor of a monstrous lie.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Michael B,

    Generally I just ignore your posts – but beyond misreading Freakonomics – that point doesn’t even begin to hold water. During the time of the dramatic drop in crime in New York City – the population of NYC grew at a healthy rate – so there was a lot of migration to NYC and lots of babies were still being born (even post Roe v. Wade) and they weren’t all born to the upper crust.

    Also, “the criminals” (as you put it) that were aborted were disproportionately of a certain racial makeup (African-American). Are you suggesting that this is a good thing? This has echoes of the kind of eugenic thinking (Margaret Sanger-style) that undergirds the entire abortion regime.

    You may be thinking you are making an interesting observation, but you are really giving voice to a kind of thinking that discounts the obvious truth in favor of a monstrous lie.

  • rlewer

    The theory and action is based on the idea that it is the purpose of the government to solve all problems and right all wrongs and make everything “fair.” (Sound familiar?) It appeals to an end that most people desire. Unless we wake up to what it really is, it will continue spreading.

    It was the avowed purpose of Soviet Communism to make everything good and fair through the “power of the People” (government). We saw hoe that worked out in practice. The Gulags filled up.

    Haven’t read Levin’s book yet, but it does seem that all attempted Utopias are really nightmares of central control.

  • rlewer

    The theory and action is based on the idea that it is the purpose of the government to solve all problems and right all wrongs and make everything “fair.” (Sound familiar?) It appeals to an end that most people desire. Unless we wake up to what it really is, it will continue spreading.

    It was the avowed purpose of Soviet Communism to make everything good and fair through the “power of the People” (government). We saw hoe that worked out in practice. The Gulags filled up.

    Haven’t read Levin’s book yet, but it does seem that all attempted Utopias are really nightmares of central control.

  • Abby

    J. Dean @4: “This may sound extreme, but in one sense it’s the state supplanting God in terms of authority.”

    Not extreme at all. 1 Sam. 8: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations. . . And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign overr them.’ . . . ‘And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.’”

    I see this also in the emptying of our churches today because I can see it on both sides of my family. When I was a child I remember my church being packed almost every Sunday. Now, it’s like ‘pulling teeth’ to get some people out. And pastor’s too often look to themselves as the failure in this — that the people are rejecting them for not being ‘good enough’ somehow. They feel the responsibility to ‘attract’ people is on their shoulders. And I’ve heard some people in churches blame it on the pastor or say things like, ‘we’ll see if he can turn this (decline) around.’ No–the responsibility belongs to all of us. Just the same as the government is for, of, and by the people.

    A church body described it this way: “One generation *cherished the gospel* and believed that the entailment of the gospel lay in certain social and political commitments. The next generation *assumed the gospel* and emphasized the social and political commitments. The present generation identifies itself with the social and political commitments, while the *gospel is variously confessed or disowned*; it no longer lies at the heart of the belief system of some who call themselves Christian.”

    My grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. built the churches and sacrificed for them; their children were baptized and confirmed. These children, my parents and aunts and uncles, brought their children to baptism, worshipped somewhat regularly, but were not very concerned about Christian education for their children. My generation brought the children to baptism and basically dropped out of church altogether. Now my nieces and nephews and cousins do not attend church, have not brought their children to baptism, and complain about the government because it is not taking care of all of their needs. They do not look to God at all. They do not want Him impinging on their lifestyles. So, out of a 100+ family members, 2 or 3 families may be seriously involved with their church.

    The saddest side of my family with this is the one whose grandfather immigrated here from Damascus, Syria — specifically in search of religious freedom and to serve Jesus Christ. Who became an Orthodox priest, ministered to hundreds of families in the state, and established two Eastern Orthodox churches which are still thriving today. But his own family has all fallen away. I am glad he is not here to see it. I pray they (or some) will come back — not to ‘church,’ but to Jesus Christ whom the grandfather loved.

  • Abby

    J. Dean @4: “This may sound extreme, but in one sense it’s the state supplanting God in terms of authority.”

    Not extreme at all. 1 Sam. 8: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, ‘Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations. . . And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign overr them.’ . . . ‘And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.’”

    I see this also in the emptying of our churches today because I can see it on both sides of my family. When I was a child I remember my church being packed almost every Sunday. Now, it’s like ‘pulling teeth’ to get some people out. And pastor’s too often look to themselves as the failure in this — that the people are rejecting them for not being ‘good enough’ somehow. They feel the responsibility to ‘attract’ people is on their shoulders. And I’ve heard some people in churches blame it on the pastor or say things like, ‘we’ll see if he can turn this (decline) around.’ No–the responsibility belongs to all of us. Just the same as the government is for, of, and by the people.

    A church body described it this way: “One generation *cherished the gospel* and believed that the entailment of the gospel lay in certain social and political commitments. The next generation *assumed the gospel* and emphasized the social and political commitments. The present generation identifies itself with the social and political commitments, while the *gospel is variously confessed or disowned*; it no longer lies at the heart of the belief system of some who call themselves Christian.”

    My grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. built the churches and sacrificed for them; their children were baptized and confirmed. These children, my parents and aunts and uncles, brought their children to baptism, worshipped somewhat regularly, but were not very concerned about Christian education for their children. My generation brought the children to baptism and basically dropped out of church altogether. Now my nieces and nephews and cousins do not attend church, have not brought their children to baptism, and complain about the government because it is not taking care of all of their needs. They do not look to God at all. They do not want Him impinging on their lifestyles. So, out of a 100+ family members, 2 or 3 families may be seriously involved with their church.

    The saddest side of my family with this is the one whose grandfather immigrated here from Damascus, Syria — specifically in search of religious freedom and to serve Jesus Christ. Who became an Orthodox priest, ministered to hundreds of families in the state, and established two Eastern Orthodox churches which are still thriving today. But his own family has all fallen away. I am glad he is not here to see it. I pray they (or some) will come back — not to ‘church,’ but to Jesus Christ whom the grandfather loved.

  • Abby

    “. . . instincts founded in nature must be nurtured in families. The fact that much of modern life, from *family disintegration to scabrous entertainment*, is shocking evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked.

    And the *highest purpose of politics* is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that *nurtures rather than weakens* the promptings of *the moral sense*.” — How can that happen (?) if, ” . . . *culture is often determinative*, is harder to change than incentives and impedes individuals’ abilities to respond to incentives. . . .”

    I may not be understanding these lines — do they seem contradictory?

  • Abby

    “. . . instincts founded in nature must be nurtured in families. The fact that much of modern life, from *family disintegration to scabrous entertainment*, is shocking evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked.

    And the *highest purpose of politics* is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that *nurtures rather than weakens* the promptings of *the moral sense*.” — How can that happen (?) if, ” . . . *culture is often determinative*, is harder to change than incentives and impedes individuals’ abilities to respond to incentives. . . .”

    I may not be understanding these lines — do they seem contradictory?

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Abby, I appreciate your insightful comments in #5.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Abby, I appreciate your insightful comments in #5.

  • John C

    Church and state have distinct and separate roles. Difficulties arise when the two merge, eg Ireland, Mussolini’s Italy, Saudi Arabia and czarist Russia…………….
    As the economy has grown, so has the role of the state.
    The Republican attempt to the blur the lines between church and state has been fascinating.

  • John C

    Church and state have distinct and separate roles. Difficulties arise when the two merge, eg Ireland, Mussolini’s Italy, Saudi Arabia and czarist Russia…………….
    As the economy has grown, so has the role of the state.
    The Republican attempt to the blur the lines between church and state has been fascinating.

  • larry

    “There seems to be a strong connection between a rejection of God/religion, and an embracing of a larger, broader, more powerful government.”

    J Dean, you are putting your finger on THE point but its even larger. In fact in OT the Lord states to Samuel the prophet Israel rejecting the judges and wanting a king just like the nations, was not a rejection of him, Samuel, but of God himself. Granted that was in a definitively theocratic state/nation. However, the principle is still the same and follows in that “fear, love and trust” is invested into the government and in our case free market (it cuts both ways). Luther defines “what one’s god is” is ultimately that which one invests ‘fear, love and trust in’ or put another way that which one goes to in all trial and trouble and call upon in every need (true or false God/god). This is the very heart of the first commandment, its denial and subsequent idolatry. True government is the sword of God in its proper station, but when it appeals to and garner “fear, love and trust” for itself it is morphing into a beastlike state. Free market is good and works well, but when it too becomes that which is “feared, loved and trusted” it becomes an idol showing “leg” to draw people into idolatry (analogous to adultery). For idols, all of them, however, the ‘fear, love and trust’ is inverted as with all satanic doctrines whereby the worship “flow” goes from earth to heaven. Thus, all idols be it these two or others follow a worship pattern of, “if you believe, then you are ‘saved’ (by the god/idol)”. For the true God the worship is heaven descends/condescends to earth. Thus, it becomes “because you are forgiven (saved), therefore you believe (trust)”. Thus, we work for idols as gods to us (e.g. government, free market, others). But the true God works for us out of His proper nature and favor.

  • larry

    “There seems to be a strong connection between a rejection of God/religion, and an embracing of a larger, broader, more powerful government.”

    J Dean, you are putting your finger on THE point but its even larger. In fact in OT the Lord states to Samuel the prophet Israel rejecting the judges and wanting a king just like the nations, was not a rejection of him, Samuel, but of God himself. Granted that was in a definitively theocratic state/nation. However, the principle is still the same and follows in that “fear, love and trust” is invested into the government and in our case free market (it cuts both ways). Luther defines “what one’s god is” is ultimately that which one invests ‘fear, love and trust in’ or put another way that which one goes to in all trial and trouble and call upon in every need (true or false God/god). This is the very heart of the first commandment, its denial and subsequent idolatry. True government is the sword of God in its proper station, but when it appeals to and garner “fear, love and trust” for itself it is morphing into a beastlike state. Free market is good and works well, but when it too becomes that which is “feared, loved and trusted” it becomes an idol showing “leg” to draw people into idolatry (analogous to adultery). For idols, all of them, however, the ‘fear, love and trust’ is inverted as with all satanic doctrines whereby the worship “flow” goes from earth to heaven. Thus, all idols be it these two or others follow a worship pattern of, “if you believe, then you are ‘saved’ (by the god/idol)”. For the true God the worship is heaven descends/condescends to earth. Thus, it becomes “because you are forgiven (saved), therefore you believe (trust)”. Thus, we work for idols as gods to us (e.g. government, free market, others). But the true God works for us out of His proper nature and favor.