On Character


Author: James Q. Wilson

Year of Publication: 1995

Page Count: 234

On Character (1995, 234 pages) is a collection of essays written by James Q. Wilson between 1967 and 1993. The common thread that ties these essays together is the theme of character, and the important role that personal character plays in numerous public policy issues, from crime to education to business and beyond. Wilson’s focus on the importance of personal character led to him being classified as a conservative, although he only reluctantly accepted that label. As he writes in his introduction, “Now I confess to being conservative, at least by the standards of contemporary academia.”

The essays themselves reveal that while Wilson had some “conservative” tendencies, it was only the leftward shift in the political landscape that left him in that position. Where Wilson hits the target (and where he faced his most serious opposition), is in his refusal to go along with the dominant narrative (which has only become stronger in the twenty-seven years since this book was published) that blames high rates of drug abuse, criminality, and family breakdown on social inequality, unemployment, and political oppression, without taking into account personal character and personal responsibility.

Wilson’s essays make for interesting and often insightful reading, particularly his influential work on “The Problem of Broken Windows,” an article originally published in 1982 that led to positive policy changes in cities like New York under the leadership of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In the end, however, I can only give this book a qualified recommendation – while Wilson appeared to understand the nature of the problem, the solutions he offers are often less than satisfactory.