Book Reviews

Man vs. the State

Economist Walter E. Williams reflects on his long career battling Jim Crow, big government, and liberal orthodoxy.

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Up From the Projects: An Autobiography, by Walter E. Williams, Hoover Institution Press, 150 pages, $24.95

On May 29, 1963, Pvt. Walter E. Williams of the U.S. Army's 30th Infantry Division wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy denouncing the pervasive racism of the American government and military. The armed forces may have been officially integrated at that point, but as Williams knew from firsthand experience, Jim Crow was still alive and well on military bases throughout the South and overseas. "Should Negroes be relieved of their service obligation or continue defending and dying for empty promises of freedom and equality?" Williams demanded. "Or should we demand human rights as our Founding Fathers did at the risk of being called extremists.…I contend that we relieve ourselves of oppression in a manner that is in keeping with the great heritage of our nation."

It wasn't the first time Walter Williams came out swinging against the government, and it wouldn't be the last. A self-described "crazy-ass man who insisted on talking about liberty in America," Williams ultimately established himself as one of the country's leading libertarian voices, serving as the chairman of George Mason University's economics department from 1995 to 2001, writing a nationally syndicated column that now appears in more than 140 newspapers, and filling in as a regular guest host for talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh. (Williams is also a trustee emeritus of the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine.) In Up From the Projects: An Autobiography, the 74-year-old Williams offers a revealing and sometimes hilarious account of his rise from Philadelphia's Richard Allen Homes, where his neighbors included a young Bill Cosby, to "brown bag" lunches at the White House, where he gave advice to President Ronald Reagan and his staff.

The author of seven books and dozens of academic articles, Williams is perhaps best known for his rigorous, fact-based argument that the free market is a force for racial equality. "Instead of racial discrimination and bigotry, it is the 'rules of the game' that account for many of the economic handicaps faced by blacks," he wrote in his groundbreaking 1982 book The State Against Blacks. As Williams explained, those rules included occupational licensing laws that prevented African Americans from working in numerous trades, labor legislation that gave monopoly bargaining power to racist unions, Interstate Commerce Commission regulations that effectively barred black truckers from competing on the highways, and other insidious, state-sanctioned barriers to entry.

"There are numerous laws, regulations and ordinances that have reduced or eliminated avenues of upward mobility for blacks," he observed. Take the taxicab industry. It requires relatively little in terms of start-up funds or business skills to own and operate a cab. "A poor illiterate Italian," Williams wrote, "arriving in our cities in 1925 or 1930 could, if he had ambition and industry, go out and buy a car and write TAXI on it." Yet in the early 1980s that same opportunity was closed to urban blacks due to costly and unnecessary licensing requirements and arbitrary limits on the number of cabs in a given market.

Labor laws had a similarly pernicious effect. As Williams documents, white railroad unions successfully lobbied the government for legal privileges, particularly the right to exclusively represent all workers in a unionized shop. With this monopoly bargaining power in place, a union's refusal to admit black workers functioned as a de facto ban on all blacks in the field. Union privileges also prevented the railroads from hiring anyone, black or white, willing to work for nonunion wages to get a foot in the door.

Williams' 1989 book South Africa's War Against Capitalism brought the same type of scrutiny to the infamous apartheid regime. According to many leftists at that time, apartheid epitomized the exploitation inherent in a capitalist system. But as Williams pointed out, the South African government maintained white power by denying blacks economic liberty as well as political rights. "The whole ugly history of apartheid has been an attack on free markets and the rights of individuals," he wrote. One distinguishing feature of the apartheid state, for example, was a set of laws that "reserved" certain jobs exclusively for whites. Not exactly laissez faire. "The presence of job reservation laws suggests that at least some employers would hire blacks," Williams argued, since otherwise the laws would be unnecessary. To maintain the white power system, the government had to actively suppress market forces.

Today Williams' analysis of discriminatory state action is widely accepted among academics, including many scholars on the left. In his 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, for instance, the liberal Columbia political scientist Ira Katznelson observes that "policy decisions dealing with welfare, work, and war during Jim Crow's last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s excluded, or differently treated, the vast majority of African Americans." As an example of the federal government's privileging of white workers at the expense of blacks, Katznelson cited New Deal labor laws.

Williams made the same point more than 20 years earlier, and he paid a price for upsetting the liberal consensus. As he recounts in Up From the Projects, he was the target of frequent personal attacks. "I could never really get angry at the old Stepin Fetchits and Aunt Jemimas, for they were uneducated and simply practicing acts of survival," sneered George E. Jordan of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1983 (in what turned out to be a column plagiarized almost entirely from The Washington Post's Carl Rowan, who had directed his bile at the black pro-market economist Thomas Sowell). "But I have nothing but contempt for people like Williams and his collaboration with the conservatives." Benjamin Hooks, then executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was just as ugly, describing black libertarians like Williams as "a new breed of Uncle Tom."

These grotesque attacks are demonstrably false. Williams waged a one-man battle against Jim Crow from inside the army (where he was nearly court-martialed for challenging the racial order) and continued to fight racist government action as a distinguished scholar and teacher. A principled liberal would celebrate Williams' efforts even while disagreeing with some of his free market conclusions.

But Williams isn't out to settle those old scores here. Up From the Projects narrates the highs and lows of his life with healthy doses of humility and self-deprecation. "Much of what I've achieved has not only been a result of hard work and sacrifice but luck and chance as well," he writes. It's a good lesson for anyone trying to make his mark on the world.

Meanwhile, Williams' long fight for individualism answers that question he posed to President Kennedy back in 1963: "Should we demand human rights as our Founding Fathers did at the risk of being called extremists?" Yes, we should. 

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at reason.

Bonus Reason.tv video: "Walter Williams: Up From the Projects."

NEXT: Reason Writers on The Alyona Show: Matt Welch Talks Life Sentences for Hash Production

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  1. Haven’t bought this yet, but will. I just love WW’s common sense, experience- and fact-based approach to ideas and issues. Bonus – he’s humorous and entertaining while conveying his thoughts.

  2. Great point:

    “There are numerous laws, regulations and ordinances that have reduced or eliminated avenues of upward mobility for blacks,” he observed. Take the taxicab industry. It requires relatively little in terms of start-up funds or business skills to own and operate a cab. “A poor illiterate Italian,” Williams wrote, “arriving in our cities in 1925 or 1930 could, if he had ambition and industry, go out and buy a car and write TAXI on it.” Yet in the early 1980s that same opportunity was closed to urban blacks due to costly and unnecessary licensing requirements and arbitrary limits on the number of cabs in a given market.

  3. Like his fellows in the top 5% of the human race, Williams is far too smart and honest to ever be chosen as a leader by popular election, since most people are ignoramuses bursting at the seams with vain self-regard.

  4. So I sent Thomas Sowell’s opinion piece that came out yesterday talking about Walter Williams new book “Race and Economics” to a black liberal friend on FB. His first response was to say that Sowell and Williams don’t represent anybody. He has said in the past that black conservatives/libertarians only have these beliefs to ingratiate themselves with white people. The argument that blacks (or other minorities) MUST be liberals or somehow they’re race traitors has always bothered me.

    1. Your friend is right. Sowell and Williams don’t represent anyone, other than themselves. Both of them think, and act as individuals, rather than members of a group.

      1. That’s what I said. I said I never claimed that they represent anybody. I think he was implying that I thought they represented black people. Of course they only represent themselves, but they’re some of the few that can tackle the topic of race and economics without automatically be cast as racists.

        1. Correct. Black people who stand in the way of our Socialist dream obviously aren’t racist.

          They’re Uncle Toms.

    2. The argument that blacks (or other minorities) MUST be liberals or somehow they’re race traitors has always bothered me.

      Why? It’s par-for-the-course for them.

    3. Yeah, everyone knows if you want to get into Club Honkey being a libertarian is the ticket! WTF? I tried it and it doesn’t work even if you’re already a honk to begin with.

      1. The politically correct term is “Honkaloid” or the preferred “Honky-American.

    4. “The argument that blacks (or other minorities) MUST be liberals or somehow they’re race traitors has always bothered me.”

      As a libertarian of Korean heritage, I find few people more irritating and obnoxious than younger “AZNs” (mostly prideful liberals who took a course or two in Asian-American studies at UCLA) and other leftists screaming in my face that I’m somehow “selling out to ebeel racist white capitalists.” I’ve even had a kid call me a “race traitor” when he saw me reading The Case Against the Fed at the airport (how he even knew who Rothbard was is the greatest mystery to me, as most liberals do not have the slightest clue about economics). I’m a racial minority, so I must subscribe to socialism? Guess leftists aren’t all about “racial equality” as they claim to be.

  5. Walter Williams is one of the most simplistic thinkers you’ll ever read in a newspaper. For example something like this:

    “Yet in the early 1980s that same opportunity was closed to urban blacks due to costly and unnecessary licensing requirements and arbitrary limits on the number of cabs in a given market.”

    ..sounds good at first but it assumes that there are no valid reasons why a city might need to regulate the number of taxis driving around.

    1. regardless of whether or not there is a legit reason to regulate cabs, the fact remains that it is a barrier to entry so that the opportunity that an italian immigrant had in 1925 is no longer available to an inner city black person now. That was his point.

      1. So how are the immigrant Somalis in Minneapolis pulling it off? I’ve ridden with cabbies that have only been in this country six months?

        1. Does Minneapolis have a prohibitive token system like in NY? Also are they self employed, or do they work for a corporate cab company?

        2. Because they are working for a company that already owns one of the few city licenses to operate taxis.

          They aren’t working for themselves.

          p.s. Pip how far did you make it before they threw you out of the cab because you had some booze in your luggage (which violates their muslim faith)?

    2. Please present a reason you think a city needs to regulate the number of taxis and have additional licensing for taxi drivers.

      1. Why do any regulations exist?

        To keep prices artificially high at the expense of consumers and people without political connections.

        Duh!

      2. Well, the most obvious one is that there is a limited amount of space on the city streets.

        1. Why would more taxis increase the number of vehicles on the road?
          An empty taxi is a money pit. Taxi drivers want their taxi to have an occupant most of the time or they don’t make any money.
          On the rider side someone will use a taxi or take their own vehicle. The number of vehicles does not change.
          The more the merrier because the more taxis there are, the lower the fare they will charge.
          The lower the fare, the greater likelihood of someone taking a taxi instead of using their own vehicle.
          Then there is the added benefit of more parking spaces thanks to more people taking a taxi instead of using their own car.

          You want to see a simplistic thinker?

          Look in the mirror!

          1. Yes, libertarian ideas work great in theory. Because you conveiently leave out any externalaities that might throw a wrench in things. I’m sure that when the concept of taxi cabs was first created, it was totally unregulated and probably made a lot of money for the people who thought of it. And then people heard that you can make a lot of money driving a cab and so tons of taxis started popping up and suddenly nobody can get anywhere because of the taxi gold rush…

            1. Your comment shows that you are completely ignorant of even basic economics.

              I will not waste anymore time with you.

              1. my sentiments exactly.

            2. What an idiot. Don’t you know that an overabundance of taxis attracts Godzilla and that he keeps the number down to an acceptable level.

            3. If the taxis become so numerous that they cause traffic jams, then people will stop riding them (since they take forever to get anywhere), and very soon most of those taxis will be out of business, which will leave the streets clear.
              Problems like this naturally solve themselves.

    3. What valid reason justifies charging $600,000 for a taxi license?

        1. I wonder if taxi licenses are counted in the CPI?

      1. Manila envelopes engorged with cash, shoved under the table by the Taxi Drivers Assn for the city council members are good and valid reasons.

        1. I miss the good old days, when greasing politicians meant setting them up with a hooker, or the occasional disposal of a dead body.

          1. Ahh, the simple times of the 70’s. lol

    4. Valid reasons like engorging the state coffers through hidden taxes and blocking competition for busing and other forms of state controlled mass transit that nobody wants.

    5. ..sounds good at first but it assumes that there are no valid reasons why a city might need to regulate the number of taxis driving around.

      Tell simplistic me one good (“valid”) reason why a city needs to regulate the number of taxis driving around?

    6. There are no valid reasons why a city should regulate the number of taxis. If there are too many taxis, then they won’t all make enough money to stay in business and there will be fewer taxis.

      1. … they won’t all make enough money …

        There’s your answer. It’s incumbent upon socieny to ensure everyone makes ‘enough’ money at his or her chosen vocation. No one can be allowed to lose.

    7. Seems like a pretty safe assumption.

  6. lol, OK thats pretty funny when you think about it dude. Wow.

    http://www.complete-privacy.edu.tc

  7. Once again, proof that racism from the left is acceptable as long as the target is a conservative…uppity bastard!

    1. u mean an uncle tom sellout?

      1. Are you with the Ohio KKK?

      2. Sorry, can’t talk right now with this man cock in my throat.

  8. He’s a race traitor uncle Tom lawn jockey house nigger!

  9. This morning, Glenn Beck interviewed Republican Congressman Allen West via telephone. West talked briefly about how the left gets a pass on its violent rhetoric. He related that he had been called all kinds of awful things, race traitor, etc., and that lefties had written that they wanted to skin him alive, kill him, etc.

    Lovely, tolerant people, those lefties.

    1. That theres that “new civility” they’ve been talking about… it’s all the…rage… these days

    2. A disgrace as an officer although Redlegs usually are pretty bad officers. It’s entirely appropriate that he wound up in Congress.

      [spits in disgust]

      1. Fuck off. West is one of the only men in Congress worth a damn.

  10. A poor illiterate Italian,” Williams wrote, “arriving in our cities in 1925 or 1930 could, if he had ambition and industry, go out and buy a car and write TAXI on it.” Yet in the early 1980s that same opportunity was closed to urban blacks due to costly and unnecessary licensing requirements and arbitrary limits on the number of cabs in a given market.

    But blacks were already here, starting in 1619. Did none of them have ambition and industry, or did slavery and racial oppression have something to do with it? The free market did nothing to end slavery, did nothing to end segregation.

    1. Except those were government policies that kept blacks as second class citizens, not the free market.

      1. as second class citizens and slaves*

    2. Illiterates can’t write. No wonder NPR fired this guy.

  11. Now Williams’ epxlanations I kind of agree with, but on a broader scale. Our society in general overvalues book-smarts. And it’s not just licensing laws and regulations, it’s tax/accounting and incorporations laws. Half the job of running a business is just running the business and not whatever actual trade/service you’re in. My bosses have been in homebuilding for like 25 years and their understanding of construction is still very vague and spotty – he’s only succeded in busioness over his life because he’s an amazing accountant, and very shrewd, and hard working. But on the other hand his actual intellgience and understanding and actual knowledge can be quite limited, and I think maybe in a more rational society he might not have done so well in home building. I just started like 5 years ago and already I know one of the first things I’ve got to do is take some code classes, why hasn’t he done that? On top of that they never invested in any actual equpment to save money by DYIing a few things – I had to do that myself. They want to be builders but they don’t want to do any actual work or invest in equipment themselves.
    In other words, you’d think that a builder would be someone who knows about building, that that’s the guy who’d win in the market, but it’s not, he’s just a guy who has the smarts to deal with lawyers, contracts, and accounting.

    And then on top of that corporations have been very very reluctant to actually try out people with education from alternatives-to-college forms of education, but they haven’t. Part of it is that that could be costly with firing laws and the all the costs associated with employment in general, but a big chunk of it is that all the higher ups everywhere are asses who don’t want to actually watch their employees and employ a little character and intelligence judgement. Is it really hard to tell and idiot from a smart person? But no, they keep hiring all the idiots that colleges spit out, and then they keep complaining that said idiots are idiots!

    I know a guy who turned a dutch basement into a full basement and added a room to his house all on his own. Yet, because he doesn’t have too much book smarts (he frequently misspells things), he’s supposedly an idiot. And even though he can actually do significant work, the regulatory scheme has made it impossible for him to be able to run a business.
    How many people are there out there like that? probably a LOT.

    Williams is pointing to the licensing and stuff, and in a way, he’s right. It’s not that they can’t do those jobs, maybe it’s just that they’re not good at taking written tests – and there is a difference between the two.

    1. Well said. A friend of mine sons is going through auto-mechanic schooling. He spends at least half his time learning things not related to auto-mechanics. Some are good to know things like basic accounting and some basic business skills to help someone start an auto garage but much of it is labor law, tax laws and other regulatory things related to running an garage.

  12. Ah yes the dirty little secret of the true origins of both Labor Unions and many of our early Labor Laws. They were used by the early progressive racists as a way to keep blacks in slavery when they saw that true slavery and black codes were no longer viable. No wonder the Democrats love them.

    1. Also to keep the Chinese out of the labor force, or at least make it more expensive for them to compete.

  13. A quick off-topic question/observation: for all the obviously left-hung universities is George Mason a potential hotbed of libertarianism? I mean Dr Williams as Chair of the Econ Dept, and the regular contributors at Volokh from GM Law….

  14. In my opinion it’s just one step short of the “one party democracies” many dictators and so-called communist countries employ.

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