The most accomplished social scientist of the last half-century would occasionally visit his friend and Harvard colleague Pat Moynihan at the White House when Moynihan was President Richard M. Nixon’s domestic policy adviser. Once Moynihan took him to Nixon and said: “Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.” Moynihan was right on both counts.
He also understood that although social science cannot tell us what to do, it can tell us what is not working, which has included a lot since the radical expansion of what is considered political.
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.
This is a great middle ground between the conservative rationalism I sometimes espouse and a good friend's liberal anti-rationalist responses. One of my running ideas is that cultural shifts take decades. You reap the New Deal and World War II in the 1960s; Woodstock really hit in the 1990s; we're only barely beginning to feel Reagan, etc. Which makes history are darned difficult discipline: cause and effect are so distantly separated, and by the time effects are felt, several other causes are getting involved.
Society tends to reward useful aptitudes. This produces hierarchies of pay and power that are resistant to rearrangement by government, including government attempts to redistribute income. Such attempts often ignore how income differences are necessary to reward activities and ignore history, which suggests that economic growth, which redistribution often inhibits, does more than redistributionist measures to narrow inequalities.
This is a key part of the response to Charles Murray's project, which keeps highlighting the stubborn problems of the lower classes. There's more to be said, but one key part of the answer is to say it's better to just make life better all around than to try to fight the kind of differences that we'll never do away with.
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.