Walter Williams, 1936-2020

Walter Williams passed away this week at age 84. He was the rare economist to succeed as both an academic and a popular communicator. His success came both despite and because of his growing up poor in Philadelphia. He and his sister were raised by a single mother. They lived in a housing project for much of his childhood, and they were on and off welfare for much of that time. But she set high standards for her children, and saw that they met them. In the introduction to Williams’s 1987 book All it Takes Is Guts: A Minority View, he thanked his mother, “who taught me to be independent, suspicious of the status quo, and ambitious.”

After a single semester of college in Los Angeles, he worked as a cab driver for a bit back in Philadelphia, then served in the Army. He was stationed in the Jim Crow south, and the experience was eye-opening. He committed several inspired acts of disobedience aimed at fighting the pervasive racism around him, which led to a failed attempt by one of his commanding officers to court-martial him, and a transfer to Korea. He also wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy about racism in the military, and received a response from a higher-up in the Defense Department. This would not be the last of his writings to draw a response.

After the army, he worked as a probation officer, finished college, and earned his Ph.D. from UCLA at a time when its department was one of the country’s best. Williams spent his days in the company of world-class price theorists such as Armen Alchian, with whom he would remain friends until Alchian’s death in 2013. He also befriended James Buchanan, who would go on to win the economics Nobel for his role in founding public choice theory, and was briefly a UCLA faculty member during this period. He also met Thomas Sowell, who shares Williams’s gifts for clear reasoning and clear writing.

After bouncing around a few different academic positions, including Temple University and a year at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, he found his home in 1980 at George Mason University, where he would teach for the rest of his life.

Mason had been granted its independence from the University of Virginia less than a decade before, and had no reputation to speak of. The whole school, not just the economics department, was essentially still under construction. Williams played a major role in building up their economics department, which has produced two Nobel Prize winners—Buchanan in 1986 and Vernon Smith in 2002, who also won CEI’s Julian Simon Award in 2015. Many of today’s top economists either attended or teach at Mason.

Williams would not only become the department’s longtime chairman, he would continue to teach the first-year microeconomics course required of all Ph.D students. Most professors who achieve Williams’s level of fame drop their teaching responsibilities like a hot potato. Williams embraced it. His course became something of a rite of passage, and he had a way of pairing a no-nonsense demeanor with a sense of encouragement. He wanted his students to do well, but they had to earn it.

But there is that whole fame part. Like many academics, he had top-notch mentors and colleagues, such as Alchian, Buchanan, and Sowell. But his emphasis on classroom work also sharpened his ability to explain ideas in ways that people can understand them. This is what would give him a national reputation—along with the fact that he was unapologetic about where his reasoning led him, even when it was unpopular. And on issues from minimum wages to labor regulations to fighting racial discrimination, he often was unpopular.

Williams published roughly 150 scholarly articles in his career, which is more than most academics achieve. But this was only a fraction of his output. Of his 13 books, four are collections of his newspaper columns, which he continued to write until the end of his life. Few economists have had more readers than Walter Williams. He had a gift for communication, and he was not shy about using it.

Williams’s first famous book was 1982’s The State Against Blacks, which argued that many well-intended government policies actually made racial discrimination worse. Minimum wages, for example, not only lop off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, as I’ve also argued, they actually make it easier for racist employers to discriminate. When the price of labor goes up, more people vie for fewer job openings. Employers have an easier time using non-price reasons for choosing whom to hire, such as hiring only people of their own race, or intentionally excluding Blacks or women.

Rent controls reduce the incentive to build new housing or to maintain existing housing. Minorities are worst affected by this, for similar reasons. With fewer housing spots available compared to demand, racist landlords can indulge their bigotry far more easily than they can in a free market.

Ball State University economist Steve Horwitz, who earned his Ph.D at George Mason and was CEI’s 2020 Julian Simon Award winner, said in a Facebook post, “*The State Against Blacks* was formative in my thinking about how markets and race interacted, and what a progressive libertarianism might look like. *South Africa’s War Against Capitalism* helped too.”

That book argued that Apartheid was the opposite of free-market policy. Markets punish discrimination, or at least make it more expensive. Apartheid was government regulation that forced even non-racists to discriminate, on pain of fines or worse. Markets bring people together so they can exchange for mutual benefit. It takes government policies such as Jim Crow and Apartheid to keep people apart—hence the very term “Apartheid.”

Horwitz’s point is an important one for the future of the free-market movement. Williams is an excellent role model here. Most free-market advocates have too narrow a view of things. Economic freedom is only one kind of freedom that markets can help preserve. Markets are also moral playgrounds, as George Mason economists Virgil Storr and Ginni Choi argue. In markets, people learn to trust and to be trustworthy. They learn that openness to strangers is an opportunity, not a threat. Everyone has something to offer, if you let them. Markets teach people that not only is discrimination is bad for business, it is also immoral.

Sound economic reasoning, such as Williams spent a career practicing, shows why the conventional policies people turn to in fighting discrimination are largely counterproductive. It also shows why markets are far more effective for achieving progressivism’s nobler goals than their usual policies. That dialogue needs to be more open; nothing was ever accomplished with silence.

If more classical liberals take the time to show how free markets, and not top-down policy making, can empower women, minorities, and the developing world, they can help reduce poverty, create opportunities for innovation, and reduce racism. Above all, markets create opportunities. For people who lack them, this is incredibly meaningful.

These are not always popular things to say, inside the liberty movement or out of it. But Williams didn’t mind. His reasoning is correct, as was his moral sense. So, he spoke up in print, on radio, and on television. While the fit does not seem natural, he was a frequent guest host for Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio program. Williams’s appearance in Milton Friedman’s 1980 Free to Choosetelevision series on PBS led to his own three-part PBS series in 1982, Good Intentions, based on The State Against Blacks. In his autumn years, Williams was the subject of the documentary “Suffer No Fools,” and wrote his autobiography, “Up from the Projects.” And he continued writing until almost the day he died.

Walter Williams set quite the example in his life and in his work. Now it is up to us to live up to it.