regblog series on James Q Wilson

RegBlog, a blog dedicated to regulatory news and analysis (and a favorite of bureaphiles everywhere), has a two-week series of guest blogs honoring the legacy of James Q Wilson. The series continues through July 19th, so be sure to check in. In the meantime, here are some of the highlights from the past week (after the jump):

The series begins with a contribution from Robert A. Katzmann, a Circuit Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and former Wilson student at Harvard. Katzmann highlights the cross-disciplinary impact that Wilson made. Wilson’s perspicacity, Katzmann argues, developed through his rejection of “grand social science theories”: “He believed that to label is to ignore, that politics, indeed governing, can be messy, and not well-suited to formal models devoid of a recognition of the interplay of forces that explain decisionmaking. As a teacher and scholar, he was not content to look at a data set and simply infer what the criteria for decisions were. Rather, he pressed for an empirical inquiry that involved an immersion into the organizations themselves.”

Katzmann contributed to Wilson’s influential book, The Politics of Regulation, which similarly rejected overreaching theories of regulatory politics and embraced precise empiricism rooted in a middle-range approach. As Katzmann quotes Wilson from that book:  “Regulatory laws can have a variety of political causes and…it is necessary, in order to understand why regulation occurs, to specify the circumstances under which one or another cause will be operative.”

John DiIulio delves further into Wilson’s approach to theory building, as he revisits Wilson’s apparent contradiction in explaining human behavior when he develops a rational choice explanation of criminal behavior while simultaneously rejecting rational choice accounts in bureaucratic behavior. DiIulio recalls asking Wilson about this seeming inconsistency: “The test of a good theory, [Wilson] cheerfully replied, is not only its explanatory power, parsimony, and predictive value, but also whether it yields an understanding that is ‘general, meaningful, and true’ while illuminating what is ‘most important’ or ‘most essential’ about the behavior or phenomena under study. In [Wilson’s] view, rational choice theory explained why most career criminals routinely break laws, but not why most career public servants routinely strive to faithfully execute laws.”

Steve Kelman, the former Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget and a noted public administration scholar, reflects on Wilson by way of a general lament on the state of theory building in political science and public administration scholarship today. Kelman (correctly in this blogger’s opinion) chastises contemporary political scientists for reducing complex administrative organizations to epiphenomena. Kelman argues that the true Wilsonian students are producing public administration scholarship that, while gaining strength, remains a relatively weakly populated field that is nonexistent at many of the top schools responsible for educating future administrators.

Other contributors include Donald Kettl, Alfred Marcus, and Christopher Foreman. Bureauphile will bring updates and summaries as new contributions are added. In the meantime, follow along!

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