Walter E. Williams
Walter E. Williams, Ph. D. (born 1936 in Philadelphia) is an American economist and college professor. He is also a syndicated columnist and author known for his libertarian and sometimes conservative views. He is an occasional guest host of Rush Limbaugh's radio program and Lawrence Kudlow's Kudlow & Company TV program.
- Say that you hire me to mow your lawn and afterwards you pay me $30. What I have earned might be thought of as certificates of performance, i.e. proof that I served you. With these certificates of performance in hand, I visit my grocer and demand 3 pounds of steak and a six-pack of beer that my fellow man produced. In effect, the grocer asks, "Williams, you're demanding that your fellow man, as ranchers and brewers, serve you; what did you do in turn to serve your fellow man?" I say, "I mowed my fellow man’s lawn." The grocer says, "Prove it!" That's when I hand over my certificates of performance -- the $30.
- Markets, Governments, and the Common Good, speech at Hillsdale College, 27 September 2007
- There is no moral argument that justifies using the coercive powers of government to force one person to bear the expense of taking care of another. If that person is too resolute in his refusal to do so, what is the case for imposing fines, imprisonment or death? You say, "Death! Aren't you exaggerating, Williams?" Say he tells the agents of Congress that he'll pay his share of the constitutionally mandated functions of government but refuse to pay the health costs of a sick obese person or a cyclist who becomes a vegetable, what do you think the likely course of events will be? First, he'd be threatened with fines, imprisonment or property confiscation. Refusal to give in to these government sanctions would ultimately lead to his being shot by the agents of Congress.
- Liberty vs Socialism
- If FDA officials err on the side of under-caution in approving an unsafe drug, they are attacked by the media and patient groups, and investigated by Congress. Their victims, sick and dead people, are highly visible. If FDA officials err on the side of over-caution, keeping a safe and effective drug off the market, who's to know? The victims are invisible. For example, neither the Americans who get sick or die from meningitis C this year, nor their loved ones, will know that their illness or death could have been prevented had it not been for errors by FDA officials. It's a no-brainer to figure out which error FDA officials prefer to make.
- FDA: Friend of Foe?
- Three-fifths to two-thirds of the federal budget consists of taking property from one American and giving it to another. Were a private person to do the same thing, we'd call it theft. When government does it, we euphemistically call it income redistribution, but that's exactly what thieves do -- redistribute income. Income redistribution not only betrays the founders' vision, it's a sin in the eyes of God.
- On Bogus Right (February 8 2006)
- This is why socialism is evil. It employs evil means, coercion or taking the property of one person, to accomplish good ends, helping one's fellow man. Helping one's fellow man in need, by reaching into one's own pockets, is a laudable and praiseworthy goal. Doing the same through coercion and reaching into another's pockets has no redeeming features and is worthy of condemnation.
- Evil Concealed by Money, 19 November 2008
- But I think that the Democrats have been very successful in portraying themselves as the caring people, when if you look at the effects of the Democratic Party on Black people I think it’s horrible, it’s horrendous. For example, if you ask the question, “In what cities do Blacks live under the worst conditions—in terms of crime, rotten education, poor services,”—these are the very cities that have been run for decades by Democrats. I don’t care whether you are talking about Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, or Detroit, it’s all been Democrats. And then on top of it, it’s been Black Democrats! That is, again, if you look at where Blacks live under the most horrible conditions, its in cities where a Black is the mayor, a Black is the chief of police and a Black is the superintendent of schools.
All It Takes is Guts: A Minority View
- How does something immoral, when done privately, become moral when it is done collectively? Furthermore, does legality establish morality? Slavery was legal; apartheid is legal; Stalinist, Nazi, and Maoist purges were legal. Clearly, the fact of legality does not justify these crimes. Legality, alone, cannot be the talisman of moral people.
- But let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well then tell me how much of what I earn belongs to you - and why?
Economics for the Citizen
- In 302, the Roman emperor Diocletian commanded "there should be cheapness," declaring, "Unprincipled greed appears wherever our armies … march. … Our law shall fix a measure and a limit to this greed." The predictable result of Diocletian's food price controls were black markets, hunger and food confiscation by his soldiers. Despite the disastrous history of price controls, politicians never manage to resist tampering with prices -- that's not a flattering observation of their learning abilities.
- I personally believe that economics is fun and valuable. People who say they found it a nightmare in college just didn't have a good teacher-professor. I became a good teacher-professor as a result of tenacious mentors during my graduate study at UCLA. Professor Armen Alchian, a very distinguished economist, used to give me a hard time in class. But one day, we were having a friendly chat during our department's weekly faculty/graduate student coffee hour, and he said, "Williams, the true test of whether someone understands his subject is whether he can explain it to someone who doesn't know a darn thing about it." That's a challenge I love: making economics fun and understandable.
- We're all grossly ignorant about most things that we use and encounter in our daily lives, but each of us is knowledgeable about tiny, relatively inconsequential things. For example, a baker might be the best baker in town, but he's grossly ignorant about virtually all the inputs that allow him to be the best baker. What is he likely to know about what goes into the processing of the natural gas that fuels his oven? For that matter, what does he know about oven manufacture? Then, there are all the ingredients he uses -- flour, sugar, yeast, vanilla and milk. Is he likely to know how to grow wheat and sugar and how to protect the crop from diseases and pests? What is he likely to know about vanilla extraction and yeast production? Just as important is the question of how all the people who produce and deliver all these items know what he needs and when he needs them. There are literally millions of people cooperating with one another to ensure that the baker has all the necessary inputs. It's the miracle of the market and prices that gets the job done so efficiently. What's called the market is simply a collection of millions upon millions of independent decision makers not only in America but around the world. Who or what coordinates the activities all of these people? Rest assuredly it's not a bakery czar.
- At the beginning of each semester, I tell students that my economic theory course will deal with positive, non-normative economic theory. I also tell them that if they hear me making a normative statement without first saying, "In my opinion," they are to raise their hands and say, "Professor Williams, we didn't take this class to be indoctrinated with your personal opinions passed off as economic theory; that's academic dishonesty." I also tell them that as soon as they hear me say, "In my opinion," they can stop taking notes because my opinion is irrelevant to the subject of the class -- economic theory. Another part of this particular lecture to my students is that by no means do I suggest that they purge their vocabulary of normative or subjective statements. Such statements are useful tools for tricking people into doing what you want them to do. You tell your father that you need a cell phone and he should buy you one. There's no evidence whatsoever that you need a cell phone. After all, George Washington managed to lead our nation to defeat Great Britain, the mightiest nation on Earth at the time, without owning a cell phone.
- "You can never be too safe." Yes, you can. How many of us bother to inspect the hydraulic brake lines in our cars before we start the engine and head off to work? Doing so would be safer than simply assuming that the lines were intact and driving off. After all, prior to launching a space vehicle, the people at NASA make no similar assumptions. They go through a countdown of all systems, taking nothing for granted. Erring on the side of over-caution is costly, and so is erring on the side of under-caution, though for a given choice, one might be costlier than the other.
- There are several methods of conflict resolution. First, there's the market mechanism -- let the highest bidder be the one who owns and decides how the land will be used. Then, there's government fiat, where the government dictates who gets to use the land for what purpose. Gifts might be the way where an owner arbitrarily chooses a recipient. Finally, violence is a way to resolve the question of who has the use rights to the coastline -- let people get weapons and physically fight it out. At this juncture, some might piously say, "Violence is no way to resolve conflict!" The heck it isn't. The decision of who had the right to use most of the Earth's surface was settled through violence (wars). Who has the right to the income I earn is partially settled through the threats of violence. In fact, violence is such an effective means of resolving conflict that most governments want a monopoly on its use.
- there's the claim that this or that price is unreasonable. I used to have conversations about this claim with Mrs. Williams early on in our 44-year marriage. She'd return from shopping complaining that stores were charging unreasonable prices. Having aired her complaints, she'd ask me to go out and unload a car trunk loaded with groceries and other items. Having completed the chore, I'd resume our conversation, saying, "Honey, I thought you said the prices were unreasonable. Are you an unreasonable person? Only an unreasonable person would pay unreasonable prices." The long and short of it is that the conversation never went over well, and we both ceased discussions of reasonable or unreasonable prices. The point is that whatever price a transaction is transacted at represents a meeting of the mind of both buyer and seller. Both viewed themselves as being better off than the next alternative -- not making the transaction. That's not to say that the seller wouldn't have found a higher price more pleasing or the buyer wouldn't have been pleased with a lower price.
- "It's wrong to profit from the misfortune of others." I ask my students whether they'd support a law against doing so. But I caution them with some examples. An orthopedist profits from your misfortune of having broken your leg skiing. When there's news of a pending ice storm, I doubt whether it saddens the hearts of those in the collision repair business. I also tell my students that I profit from their misfortune — their ignorance of economic theory.
Markets, Governments, and the Common Good
- What human motivation is responsible for getting the most wonderful things done? I would say greed. When I use the term greed, I do not mean cheating, stealing, fraud and other acts of dishonesty, I mean people seeking to get the most for themselves. One might be tempted to use “enlightened self interest” but I like greed better. Unfortunately, many people are naive enough to believe that it is compassion, concern, and "feeling another's pain" that's the superior human motivation. As such we fall easy prey to charlatans, quacks and hustlers.
- Since it's not considered polite, and surely not politically-correct to come out and actually say that greed gets wonderful things done, let me go through a few of the millions of examples of the benefits of people trying to get more for themselves. There's probably widespread agreement that it's a wonderful thing that most of us own cars. Is there anyone who believes that the reason we have cars is because Detroit assembly line workers care about us? It's also wonderful that Texas cattle ranchers make the sacrifices of time and effort caring for steer so that New Yorkers can have beef on their supermarket shelves. It is also wonderful that Idaho potato growers arise early to do back-breaking work in the hot sun to ensure that New Yorkers also have potatoes on their supermarket shelves. Again, is there anyone who believes that ranchers and potato growers, who make these sacrifices, do so because they care about New Yorkers? They might hate New Yorkers. New Yorkers have beef and potatoes because Texas cattle ranchers and Idaho potato growers care about themselves and they want more for themselves. How much steak and potatoes would New Yorkers have if it all depended on human love and kindness? I would feel sorry for New Yorkers. Thinking this way bothers some people because they are more concerned with the motives behind a set of actions rather than the results. This is what Adam Smith, the father of economics, meant in The Wealth of Nations when he said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests."
- Market capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to the common man. The rich have always had access to entertainment, often in the comfort of their palaces and mansions. The rich have never had to experience the drudgery of having to beat out carpets, iron their clothing or slave over a hot stove all day in order to have a decent dinner. They could afford to hire people. Capitalism's mass production and marketing have made radios and televisions, vacuum cleaners, wash-and-wear clothing and microwave ovens available and well within the means of the common man; thus, sparing him of the boredom and drudgery of the past. Today, the common man has the power to enjoy much (and more) of what only the rich could afford yesteryear.
- Most people agree that slavery is immoral. But what makes it so? Slavery denies a person the right to use his property (body) and the fruits of his labor the way he sees fit. Slavery forcibly uses one person to serve the purposes of another. Tragically, most Americans, including blacks, whose ancestors have suffered from gross property right violations, think it quite proper that one person be forcibly used to serve the purposes of another.
- Despite the miracles of capitalism, it doesn't do well in popularity polls. One of the reasons is that capitalism is always evaluated against the non-existent, non-realizable utopias of socialism or communism. Any earthly system, when compared to a Utopia will pale in comparison. But for the ordinary person, capitalism, with all of its warts, is superior to any system yet devised to deal with our everyday needs and desires.
- A resource allocation method that requires that I serve my fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces is far more moral than government resource allocation. The government can offer, justifying it with one reason or another, "Williams, you don't have to serve your fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces. Through the tax code, we'll take what he produces and give it to you." Of course, if I were to privately take what my fellow man produced, we'd call it theft. The only difference is when the government does it, that theft is legal but nonetheless theft — the taking of one person's rightful property to give to another.
American Contempt for Liberty
- The Rev. Jesse Jackson once said, “There is nothing more painful for me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.
- French economist/philosopher Frederic Bastiat (1801–50) gave a test for immoral government acts: “See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.
- Philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explained that “no one is as hopelessly enslaved as the person who thinks he’s free.” That’s becoming an apt description for Americans who are oblivious to—or ignorant of—the liberties we’ve lost.
- Believing that presidents have taxing and spending powers leaves Congress less politically accountable for our deepening economic quagmire. Of course, if you’re a congressman, not being held accountable is what you want.
- The 2000 election of George W. Bush as president gave Republicans what the Democrats have now, total control of the legislative and executive branches of government. When Bush came to office, federal spending was $1.788 trillion. When he left office, federal spending was $2.982 trillion.
- Do-gooders fail to realize that most good is not done in the name of good but done in the name of self-interest.
- Our founders, in the words of Thomas Paine, recognized that, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.
- What our nation needs is a separation of “business and state” as it has a separation of “church and state.” That would mean crony capitalism and crony socialism could not survive.
- It’s government people, not rich people, who have the power to coerce and make our lives miserable. Coercive power goes a long way toward explaining political corruption.
Quotes about Williams
- Williams is not a good historian. His handling of evidence gives me pause if we are to judge his credentials as an economist, because, as you say, good ones know that the facts should support the theory.