Acton Institute Powerblog

Walter Williams, RIP

(Photo credit: Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. CC BY 3.0.)

The world has lost a voice for logic, liberty, and love of the U.S. Constitution. Economist Walter Williams died overnight at the age of 84. Williams worked his way out of grinding poverty in the Philadelphia housing projects to chair George Mason University’s economics department, author 10 books and more than 150 publications, and become one of the most recognized commentators of the last four decades. Williams spread his message of racial equality, the dignity of work, and the morality of capitalism through his syndicated newspaper column, PBS documentaries, and frequent radio and TV appearances. He is survived by his daughter, Devyn.

Walter Edward Williams was born on March 31, 1936, in Philadelphia. His father abandoned the family, leaving his wife, Catherine, to raise their three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. Catherine took intermittent work as a domestic servant while living in the Richard Allen housing projects of Philadelphia, where Williams grew up at the same time as Bill Cosby. His mother encouraged her children’s intellectual development by taking them to museums, art galleries, and libraries.

Williams, who described himself as a “troublemaker,” began working honest jobs as a shoe-shine boy, in mail departments, and in commercial deliveries from a young age – too young for the law. The Labor Department ejected a 15-year-old Williams from a sewing job for working while underage. Despite its dubious legality, Williams credited his young work history for instilling the drive and habits that would take him to the heights of his profession.

He would be drafted into the Army in the 1950s. (“My labor services were confiscated by the U.S. government,” Williams quipped.) He was stationed in Georgia, where he first encountered racial segregation and where he first began to speak out publicly, eventually writing letters to President John F. Kennedy. He rebelled against the typical practice of assigning blacks second-class jobs: When ordered to paint a truck, he painted the entire truck – including the headlights. After an unrelated incident, he would successfully defend himself from court-martial while acting as his own counsel.

After his release from the military, he and his new wife, Connie, left for California, where he went to college. He became consumed with the nation’s civil rights struggle – supporting Malcolm X over Martin Luther King Jr. – but had no time to participate in demonstrations. Reading W.E.B. DuBois convinced Williams to major in economics. He earned his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1972 and taught at Philadelphia’s Temple University for five years, beginning in 1975.

In 1980, Dr. Williams opened two new chapters in his professional life: He moved to George Mason University, and he began his syndicated newspaper column. He served as chairman of the university’s economics department from 1995-2001. As administrator, Williams said he effectively “privatized” the department by developing outside income streams to hire additional faculty.

For the last 40 years Walter E. Williams’ nationally syndicated column, “A Minority View,” has carried his voice into approximately 140 newspapers nationwide. His latest column, “Black Education Tragedy is New,” ran on the Creators Syndicate on the day he died. Ten books followed, beginning with 1982’s The State Against Blacks. His books often dealt with provocative questions, such as his 2011 book, Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? He published Up from the Projects: An Autobiography in 2010.

As his profile rose, Williams expanded into broadcasting. He produced multiple documentaries for PBS, beginning with 1985’s Good Intentions. For years, he served as the guest host of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, referring to himself on the air (as he did in his columns) by his surname, “Williams.” And he has appeared on numerous TV programs, typically to voice an opinion the mainstream media would not associate with the minority community.

Walter Williams leveraged his expertise in economics to promote the cause of racial equality – and to encourage his fellow citizens to root out all forms of state-sanctioned discrimination. He opposed the artificial barriers and robust state interventionism that kept black people down in the Jim Crow South. (He wrote a full-length book on the statist economic underpinnings of South African apartheid, as well.) At the same time, he believed all Affirmative Action programs, set-asides, and other forms of reverse discrimination should be abolished – putting him at odds with modern so-called “antiracist theorists” like Ibrahim X. Kendi, who believes, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”

Williams’ trust in free markets to heal racial wounds comes partly from the insights he gleaned from such economists as F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. “Economics tends to bring people to their senses,” Williams said. “The people who are for discrimination are also against markets, because they know markets tend to be colorblind.” In that, they reflected the way Williams practiced racial equality in his personal relationships. “I look at people, I don’t see colors. I don’t judge people by colors. I say, ‘Well, gee, you’re a man just like I am,’” he said.

Williams steadfastly warned against seeking a unitary political solution to a problem rooted in innumerable personal choices. “It’s false to assume that economic power depends on political power,” he said. “You have to develop skills and training. One of the reasons people make low wages is, for the most part, they have low skills.”

However, he found a multitude of government programs retarding black progress: the minimum wage, occupational licensing laws, and the welfare state. A high minimum wage increases unemployment by requiring unskilled workers to demand more money than their employment would justify. Occupational licensing laws, such as the city governments restricting the number of taxi cab medallions, limits competition and prevents the poor-but-industrious individual from bettering his lot in life. And it keeps young people – especially minorities – from participating in the virtuous cycle of the market. Williams wrote:

The rise of capitalism brought greater morality into our relationships. There is the biblical passage, “It is as difficult for a rich man to get into Heaven as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” That biblical phrase was quite appropriate for the time because wealth was most often acquired through capturing, plundering and looting your fellow man. But, with the rise of capitalism, people like Bill Gates are rich because they have served their fellow man. … The morality of the free market should be stressed because it is far superior to any other method of allocating resources.

“No one argues that the free enterprise system is perfect,” he wrote, “but it’s the closest we’ll come here on Earth.”

The welfare state constitutes the greatest threat to young minorities, Walter Williams warned, because it engenders the condition his mother called “spiritual poverty – that is, poverty of the spirit.” It develops “ideas of dependency” and subsidizes “all kinds of pathological behaviors.” With inarguable statistical precision, Williams exposed how welfare state programs drove up levels of black family breakdown, illegitimacy, and crime. He asked:

Are we so arrogant as American people to think that we are different from other people around the world? How different are we from the Romans? … Or the British, or French, or the Spanish, or the Portuguese? These are great empires of the past, but they went down the tubes for roughly the same things that we’re doing.

Echoing Lord John Acton, Williams said, “Liberty is the rare state of affairs in mankind’s history. Arbitrary abuse and control by others is the standard.”

Williams, whose superlative intellect and life’s work were anything but standard, leaves behind a gaping hole in academia and a grateful world of friends and readers who benefited from the fruits of his lifelong scholarship. Sen. Ted Cruz called him “legendary,” as well as “brilliant, incisive, witty, and profound. … a ferocious defender of free markets and a powerful explainer of the virtues of [l]iberty.” Kay Coles James, the president of the Heritage Foundation, remembered him as “one of the world’s most brilliant economists.” Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center described Williams as “a prolific, provocative and uncompromising writer” with a “happy-warrior demeanor.” That demeanor came after significant honing and softening by his wife, Connie, who preceded him in death. He is survived by their only daughter, Devyn.

Walter E. Williams, requiescat in pace.

Additional reading:

“On Liberty’s Moral Superiority,” an interview with Walter Williams published in the November/December 1994 issue of Religion & Liberty (volume 4, number 6).

Ten Quotes from economist Walter Williams.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.