Professor and columnist Walter E. Williams, one of America’s leading Conservative black intellectuals, died at the age of 84, after teaching his last class at George Mason University.
Throughout his career, he stood out as one of the most renowned economists when it came to investigating free-market capitalism and the tyranny of the status quo, overlaid under the guise of the state to favor vested interests.
Although both qualifications are simply referential, because in the history of economic thought of the last two centuries, the fretwork theoricism on liberal economic theory is usually simplified in Friedman, Buchanan, Becker or Stiglitz, the observation makes some sense because Williams’ prolific work has become one of the most important references on the effects of state interventionism on the social and economic policies that have taken place in the country during the last two centuries, in the name of fighting discrimination.
According to Williams, one of the main problems affecting American society is the strategy of politicians to offer blacks symbolic distinctions, politically correct rhetoric, and subsidies of all kinds in exchange for electoral crumbs. Hence the title of his first book “The State Against Blacks,” in 1982.
For Walter E. Williams -also for classic economists like Smith and Hayek- the key to the generation of wealth lies in the individual effort of each person, favored by an institutional framework that encourages the improvement of their own condition. “If blacks continue to accept the agenda, corrupted by the guilt of white progressives, black politicians and the smart guys of the moment, and do not take the step towards individual responsibility, in the future many of them will continue to have it raw,” he points out in his article “A Country of Cowards.”
The liberal American press has not been very kind to Williams. And although it only considers him an economic popularizer, a polemicist and a conservative, excluding him from the field of analysts, the basis of his political and economic theory applied in a masterful way to the progress of minorities, could be the conceptual focus of Williams’ most original contribution.
Thus, over the years, his journalistic inclinations and studies covered subjects as apparently diverse and confrontational as sociology, politics, philosophy, anthropology, classical economics and macroeconomics, scholarly fields on which he relied to try to explain a very specific aspect of our world: to achieve a prosperous economic system, simple and complex at the same time, founded on freedom, capable of transforming selfishness into a social virtue.
Despite the visible philosophical background of his texts, Williams used to use figures of enormous scientific rigor and comparative methods to clearly support his claims. Take, for example, the following analysis:
“The educational performance of blacks is worse in those cities with longstanding Democratic predominance and abundant investment in education. The case of Washington, DC, which occupies third place in spending rankings, is paradigmatic: in 12 of its 19 high schools, more than half of the students are below the basic level of reading (in some centers it reaches 80%); in 15 of 19 its high schools, more than half of the students are below the basic level in mathematics, although in 12 of them the percentage oscillates between 77 and 99%”.
Defense of property
Turning the state into a distributor of privileges favors the worst interests and is harmful to free society. Williams’ rebuke goes far: “If a politician had the courage to address these issues, he would not have to turn to the educational establishment, civic organizations, and political structures of the black community. It would be foolish for him to do so, because those who run them and those who live off them are very interested in maintaining the status quo.
When Walter E. Williams attacks the causes that promote discrimination in employment, he demonstrates his rejection of subsidized policies that encourage racial victimization: “What minimum wage laws do is reduce the cost and therefore subsidize the indulgence of racial preferences. After all, if an employer must pay the same wage no matter who he hires, the cost of discriminating in favor of the people he prefers is cheaper. This is a general principle.” His book, Race and Economics: How Much Discrimination Can Be Blamed, is considered a classic on the subject.
A key to Williams’ thinking is that all forms of theft, violence, deception and fraud, under the cover of the institutional framework, end up in plunder or pillage and could considerably affect the distribution of wealth and levels of freedom. In this specific case, he is heir to Bastiat, much to the regret of Liberal economists.
Williams used several times striking quotes from Bastiat to support his analyses of those who attack the defense of property. “What does Bastiat mean by looting? Looting is the forcible taking of another’s property. Legalized looting occurs when people use the government to do it, as happens in our Congress.” He added: “Bastiat held that the state is the great fiction through which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.
Relentless with the privileged who live off the state, Williams warns: “Because people desire what is foreign to them, it is clear that the government should use force to prevent that tendency, rather than do the opposite.”
The French economist’s famous definition of the state as “a great fiction through which everyone strives to live at the expense of others” is valid in Williams’ postulates. His thesis is clear: the pretension of a social group to live at the expense of others is not only detrimental to the economy, but especially to morality, freedom and justice.
More liberty, less government
Smithian recommendations, such as the defense of economic freedom, are also observed in Williams. The author of “More Liberty Means Less Government” refutes the theory of attributing the difference between rich and poor countries to the number of natural resources and the burden of their colonial past. “That has to be nonsense. Africa and South America are probably the richest continents in natural resources but are home to the world’s most miserably poor people. On the other hand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and England are poor in natural resources, but their people are among the world’s richest,” says Williams.
A subject on which progressive writers have squandered unfounded theories seems to Williams not only false but also manipulative. “The United States of America was a colony. So were Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Hong Kong. Yet they are all among the richest countries in the world.”
None of these postulates can withstand serious analysis. Williams dismantles them with an enlightening reflection: “The reason that some countries are richer than others lies, above all, in the degree of economic freedom enjoyed by the inhabitants of some and others, as well as in the different levels of state interference that they have to endure in economic matters.”
One of the great intellectual battles Williams fought was to clarify within the semantic field of historical constitutionalism the concepts of democracy and republic. Williams resorts to James Madison in The Federalist Papers to warn that the constitutional framework seeks to protect the people from the dangers of uncontrolled popular democracy. In this sense, Williams reminds us of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court between 1801 and 1835, and warns “between democracies and republics with a balance of powers there is the same difference as between chaos and order.”
The notions of homeland and constitution produce a performative effect in circumstances of threat, decadence or usurpation of legal space. William was not unaware of this.
“The Founding Fathers wanted us to have a republican system in which rights would precede the state and the law would prevail. Citizens and public servants would be subject to the same rules. The state could only intervene in civil society to protect individuals from violence and fraud, but it would have no role where peaceful and voluntary exchanges took place. Democracy is something else. Here the majority rules, either directly or through its elected representatives. The law is what the government says, and rights are given and taken away,” warns Williams.
To constitute a modern nation. it is not enough to decree that its citizens are free and equal before the law. First, that nation must have a sovereign state free of interference and partisan interests.
Among the few tributes that American society paid to Walter Williams after his death, stands out an article written in The Wall Street Journal by his friend, Donald J. Boudreaux, professor at George Mason University, where the illustrious economist taught for more than 40 years. “America has lost one of its greatest economists and public intellectuals… A onetime cabdriver who grew up poor in Philadelphia, Walter knew injustice—and understood the way to fight it wasn’t by emoting but by probing and learning..”
All freedom-loving Americans are going to need it badly. And, above all, African Americans. Because few thinkers and civil rights advocates in this country have done as much for their cause and their country as Walter Edward Williams. May he rest in peace.