J. Q. Wilson: Crime May be Dropping Because of Cultural Changes


After reviewing contributing factors to the drop in crime rates–better policing, more incarceration, and other familiar points–social scientist James Q. Wilson, now based at Boston College, concludes that crime may be falling “even through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression because of a big improvement in the culture.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Wilson says that “the cultural argument may strike some as vague, but writers have relied on it in the past to explain both the Great Depression’s fall in crime and the explosion of crime during the sixties. In the first period, on this view, people took self-control seriously; in the second, self-expression—at society’s cost—became more prevalent. It is a plausible case.”

Wilson concedes that it’s difficult to study culture’s effects “in a way that produces hard numbers and testable theories. Culture is the realm of novelists and biographers, not of data-driven social scientists. But we can take some comfort, perhaps, in reflecting that identifying the likely causes of the crime decline is even more important than precisely measuring it.”

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