Jim Wilson: From Human Nature to Middle Initials

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Jim Wilson continues to influence my professional career in unintended but delightful ways.

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I appreciate having this opportunity to pass on a few observations about Jim Wilson, his work, and his teaching.  They range from purely personal to strictly academic.

I began my graduate work in the period when Jim was finishing his book on voluntary associations, Political Organizations, and beginning to work on regulation. I attended his seminars on both subjects. Jim supervised my dissertation, which became my book, Industry Influence in Federal Regulatory Agencies. Later, I contributed a chapter on the Food and Drug Administration to Jim’s edited volume, The Politics of Regulation.

In the summer of 1972, prior to the regulatory seminar, Jim hired me as a research assistant, putting me to work with very simple instructions: I was to go to the library and produce a set of brief memos explaining the origins of each of the major federal regulatory agencies. He elaborated only by mentioning the standard elements of such an explanation—what was the perceived problem, how was the program designed, who supported it, who opposed, and so on. Some weeks after I had delivered the work, he asked me for comments on draft manuscript. It was an essay, for a Brookings volume, that among other things used the regulatory cases to present a typology of policy issues—which proved to be one of his major contributions to political science.

I had not seen the typology before, and I remember my reaction: So that’s why he wanted the information!  I was struck by the fact of my complete prior ignorance of his purpose. I was also clever enough to appreciate the integrity of his approach. He could have mentioned, “I think the political process and the kinds of policies adopted will have something to do with how the costs and benefits of a policy are distributed.” But he had said nothing.

Like most political scientists who teach about the politics of public policy, I have often used the typology over the years. To remind readers, it suggests that the benefits of a proposed policy, and the costs, both can be either concentrated or diffuse, resulting in four categories, which he called, respectively, interest-group, clientelist, entrepreneurial, and majoritarian. The typology has been widely used, to good effect, in political science.

The basic idea of the typology was Ted Lowi’s—presented in a famous 1964 essay that proclaimed that “policies determine politics” and distinguished three types of policy: regulatory, distributive, and redistributive.  Jim’s contribution was mainly to penetrate to the fundamental issues underlying Lowi’s suggestion, and to ground the typology directly in the concepts that did the work. In using regulatory policies to present the typology, Jim showed that one of Lowi’s categories, instead of being a distinct type, actually covered every possible distribution of costs and benefits. A few political scientists still use Lowi’s version of the typology, instead of Jim’s, although as far know, no one has offered a cogent defense of doing so.

In any case, it seems that, from our current vantage point, the policy typology has a remarkable omission: It ignores the matter of whether a policy conflict falls along the liberal-conservative ideological dimension, or rather cuts across that dimension. In the era of polarized politics, nothing is more important to know about a policy issue than whether it pits liberals against conservatives, or rather divides both. For present circumstances, I think understanding policy conflict requires combining Jim’s typology with this dimensional consideration.

To me, as someone concerned mainly about political processes (rather than substantive policy), Wilson’s greatest contribution was in drawing attention to variations in political motivation and their effects—and especially the effects of ideological or, in his terms, purposive motivation. His second book, The Amateur Democrat, was the first significant work (as far as I am aware) that dealt with the political behavior of people whose interest in politics directly concerned the general effects of policies—as opposed to patronage and other kinds of material benefits. He pointed out very early that such behavior was not always practical or constructive.

Jim’s interest in motivation carried forward into his analysis of how organizational-maintenance needs of voluntary associations constrain the strategies of those that depend on “purposive incentives” to recruit members (for example, civil rights and environmental groups). It then carried further, into his account of the sometimes irrational and destructive tendencies of “entrepreneurial politics.”  And it extended still further, into his treatment of the sometimes empowering, sometimes debilitating effects of organizational missions and cultures in government agencies. It was understandable that Jim had no patience for models of politics that stipulated a simple, fixed, political motivation. Nowadays, The Amateur Democrat is enjoying a revival, as a resource for understanding the role of political activists in the polarization of party conflict. I don’t do a day’s work without recalling Jim’s ideas on these matters.

For other audiences, and for his role in American political and intellectual history, Jim’s most important work was not about politics and government, or for that matter, regulation: It was his writing on crime, social policy, character, morality, and human nature. As a moderate liberal, I found some of Jim’s countless op-ed articles to varying degrees unpersuasive.  But the striking thing was how consistently the pieces were at least insightful and cogent, for any thoughtful reader. He always knew more than anyone else writing on the given subject. It was his American Political Science Association presidential address, based on The Moral Sense, however, that moved me to tell him that I was proud to be his student.

Jim taught me other things. I took my first faculty position before completing my dissertation. When the deadline for finishing my degree in order to have the rank of assistant professor was approaching, I wrote to Jim, mentioned the salary implications of not finishing, and asked what he thought of the chances that my dissertation would be in acceptable shape before the deadline. He wrote back, advising that if I needed more money, I should try my luck at the race track. I learned something about the state of my dissertation, if not also about standards. By the way, apart from setting high standards, he did not hold up the work. When I sent in a chapter, it always came back with thorough and helpful comments in a matter of a few days.

I feel that in one small matter, Jim led me astray. When he was getting the manuscript for The Politics of Regulation, including my chapter,ready for submission, he asked me whether I wanted to use my middle initial. Because the chapter was my first publication, the issue had never occurred to me and I asked for his advice. He said I should use the initial, because it would help to make my name recognizable. So I used the initial, and have kept it. About twenty years later it occurred to me, however, that his reasoning was more compelling for someone with the last name Wilson, and the initial Q, than for someone with the initial J and the last name Quirk. After all he did for me, I have never resented the superfluous J.

Paul J. Quirk

Paul J. Quirk is Phil Lind Chair in U.S. Politics and Representation at the University of British Columbia.

This essay is part of the Penn Program on Regulation’s online symposium, Remembering James Q. Wilson.