Economics

'I Just Do My Own Thing': Walter Williams, RIP

The self-described "crazy-ass man" and libertarian economist focused on government's role in perpetuating racial inequality.

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I'm saddened to write of the death of libertarian economist Walter E. Williams. He passed away Wednesday morning at the age of 84, less than a day after teaching a class at George Mason University, where he worked for 40 years and helped transform his department into a highly respected center of free market scholars. A popular syndicated columnist whose work appeared in over a hundred newspapers on a weekly basis, he was a long-time contributor to Reason and served as an emeritus trustee of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.

Williams was so libertarian that he refused to accept the term as a descriptor. I interviewed him in 2011 and asked him whether he saw himself as part of the libertarian movement to which he had contributed so much. No, he said. "I just do my own thing."

Born in Philadelphia in 1936, Williams grew up as a neighbor to Bill Cosby in the city's racially segregated housing projects and was drafted into the peacetime Army during the Cold War. A self-described "crazy-ass man who insisted on talking about liberty in America" long before he was a public intellectual, the racist violence and abuse he suffered at the hands of police, military officers, and other authorities informed much of his work. In his powerful, evocative 2010 memoir, Up From the Projects, he recounts the time when, as a cab driver in the City of Brotherly Love, he was ordered out of his cab by a white officer, beaten up, and then charged with disorderly conduct. He wasn't thrilled about being drafted and being sent to a base in pre-integration Georgia. Disgusted by the pervasive racism he encountered in the military, Private Williams wrote to his commander in chief, President John F. Kennedy:

"Should Negroes be relieved of their service obligation or continue defending and dying for empty promises of freedom and equality… 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."

His two best-known works are probably 1982's The State Against Blacks and 1989's South Africa's War Against Capitalism, both of which focused on the ways that governments systematically constrained the basic rights and freedoms of racial minorities by denying them opportunities to live and work however they saw fit. In a 1978 article for Reason titled "The New Jim Crow Laws," he wrote:

Society is coming to view the difficulty that today's minorities face in entering the mainstream of society as a manifestation of group incompetence. Hardly anyone acknowledges that many, if not most, of the problems encountered are due neither to group nor to individual incompetence but rather are due to the excesses of governments dominated by politically powerful interest groups.

The state, Williams argued, typically forced blacks into hopeless situations, provided ineffective relief, and then blamed the victims for failing to rise above their circumstances, all while consolidating power into elite hands. Seemingly beneficial interventions such as minimum wage laws that priced unskilled blacks out of the labor markets, public housing in crime-ridden projects, and mandatory schooling at terrible public institutions were particularly pernicious because they came wrapped in a rhetoric of beneficence.

Williams was also a contrarian. He attacked discrimination by the state but defended the rights of private citizens to exclude whomever they wanted for whatever reason. A public library, he said, couldn't discriminate, but a private library could turn away anyone it wanted to. From our 2011 interview:

One of my strong values is freedom of association. If you believe in freedom of association, you have to accept that people will associate in ways that you find offensive. I believe people have the right to discriminate on any basis they want, so long as they're not using a government [to do so].

Williams had a great flair for the apocalyptic. In his columns and during stints guest-hosting for Rush Limbaugh, he would often argue that America had irrevocably lost its way, especially when it came to defending the economic freedom that he believed was essential to rising living standards. If his rhetoric ran hot, he nevertheless asked questions that are well worth considering a decade after the Great Recession and in the midst of a medically induced economic coma.

Are we so arrogant…to think that we are different from other people around the world?… How different are we from the Romans, who went down the tubes, or the British, or the 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. Liberty is the rare state of affairs in mankind's history, arbitrary abuse and control by others is the standard dish even now. All the tendencies are for us to have greater and greater amounts of our liberty usurped by government.

If we are not as far down the road to serfdom as he feared, it's in good part due to his voluminous writings and appearances which were by turns impassioned, funny, insightful, and memorable as hell. Walter E. Williams, rest in peace.

Here's the 2011 Reason interview with him.

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  1. He was a very sensible man who always had a great way of explaining his positions, usually in a manner that was both amusing and endearing.

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  2. He was a great man, he will be missed.

    1. Yes he was. I guess 2020 is not done punching us in the nuts. Reading the columns of Walter Williams in the newspaper was how I became introduced to libertarianism. He went a little crazy after 9/11 and turned into a neocon, but his contributions were still overall quite positive. RIP, Mr. Williams. Your writings will live on.

      1. Believe it or not for me it was reading Broke by Glenn Beck.

        I already had those views on fiscal matters, but it was actually a random comment about seat-belt laws where Beck mentions how he holds sympathy for the libertarian position that seat belt laws should not be legitimate because someone who does not wear a seat belt harms no one but themselves. He said he didn’t think it was the government’s job to surround us in bubble-wrap.

        That was the first expression I had ever heard for the non-aggression principle; that people should be allowed to do anything they choose as long as they do not violate the rights of others. That line of reasoning immediately grabbed hold of me and turned me from a fairly stock Republican to a NAP-style libertarian.

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  3. All that time spent and words written and spoken and yet we’re about to get the most left wing administration in history. It will go badly or worse if they cheat and take the senate too. Stop voting for democrats.

    1. They will take at least one of the seats, and might not even have to cheat (again) to do it

      1. If Democrats are going to win in Georgia, it’s at least partly because “The election was stolen” chumps and idiots like you are trying to convince Georgia Republicans to sit out the Senate election.

        You should donate all of your spare money to Donny Two-Scoops’ efforts to fight the fraud. You’ll lose your money, but hey, at least you’ll get to help the biggest grifter in American history.

        1. Where do you live?

          1. Why? What does that have to do with your stupidity?

  4. The triumphant is now down to one. Sowell. Friedman was a great debater, Sowell will always be the smartest man in the room, and Williams was the one with a devilish glint in his eye. I will miss my Sunday morning coffee and latest Williams article. RIP, good Sir, you made the world better.

    1. I’ve got the George Jones song “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?” running in my head right now

      1. I like Jason Riley of the WSJ.

  5. Big fan of this guy. His work will live on.

    1. Exactly. His columns were always good reading and will remain so.

  6. ” during stints guest-hosting for Rush Limbaugh”

    The progressive New Libertarians are shaken with cognitive dissonance until the programming kicks in and they realize that Walter E. Williams could not be a libertarian, but must be an Uncle Tomitarian.

    1. Fuck you, lefturd. Every time one of you assholes tries to smear a black man by calling him an “Uncle Tom”, you only reveal your own ignorance. If you’d ever read the book, you’d know that Tom is a hero. He’s a man of absolute integrity.

      -jcr

    2. To paraphrase Joe Biden: “If you sub hosted for Rush Limbaugh, then you ain’t black!”

  7. Williams was one of the first American public intellectuals who really drove home free market principles for me.

    I first heard him on Limbaugh and always held him in high regards.

    A big loss. But he leaves behind a legacy to refer to.

  8. He attacked discrimination by the state but defended the rights of private citizens to exclude whomever they wanted for whatever reason. A public library, he said, couldn’t discriminate, but a private library could turn away anyone it wanted to.

    They can, but they shouldn’t.

    Too many libertarians are content to see libertarianism as a set of rules for governments to follow, rather than a philosophy for individuals and groups to incorporate into their lives.
    No private library should be forced to serve people they don’t want to, but they should be encouraged nevertheless to behave liberally with others.

    Libertarians should be ambassadors for libertarianism everywhere, not just a nanny to the government.

    1. The issue is that while the actions of private firms may be distasteful, they are not infringements of rights and are therefore much less of a danger to society than actions of the state.

      If I have limited breaths to use during my time on earth… it makes more sense to speak against the state as long as it remains a threat rather than trying to change free behavior of others.

      Luckily we don’t have to be exclusively one or the other… but it does make sense why one gets the most attention.

      1. they are not infringements of rights

        But they are. Governments aren’t the only ones who can infringe on peoples right’s. Companies, religious organizations and even individuals can do this and can be just as dangerous.
        If I lock somebody up in my basement, that is just as bad as if the government did it. If my church or company effectively silences someone’s speech, that’s just as bad as if the government did it.

        1. so don’t patronize them. when you start saying “they shouldn’t” do something, someone else steps in and says “lets stop them” and it all goes downhill from there.

        2. No they are not; No-one but the owner is *entitled* to private property. You’re completely out of touch with the term rights and like many lefties here are pushing *entitlements* at the COST of property rights.

          If an UN-invited person is in your basement you have EVERY right to lock them up. Inviting them in and then locking them up falls into entrapment. There is actually no enumerated right to movement at all and is addressed on a case-by-case basis.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_movement_under_United_States_law

          1. “Inviting them in and then locking them up falls into entrapment.”

            No, that’s kidnapping.

        3. “If I lock somebody up in my basement, that is just as bad as if the government did it.”

          Not even fucking close. If you cannot appreciate the difference you are one lost mf’er.

        4. Only if they initiate force.

      2. And the reality is that protesting those actions of private firms is precisely what started the civil rights movement because government stepped in to ‘protect’ that property as superior to the right to protest

  9. O/T – Only in New Jersey.

    NJ weighs “social equity” tax on marijuana

    And fuck Phil Murphy.

    1. I hope Phailing Phil hears from more pissed off People’s Republic citizens when he dines out. In fact, I hope restaurants politely ask him to leave. The man is a buffoon, and killed thousands with his utter incompetence.

  10. Dr. Williams gave a tremendously well-received speech at the Libertarian Party’s convention in Philadelphia in 1989. It led to many LP members urging him to run for President in 1992.
    Williams decided his academic career had more appeal and would be better suited to spreading the libertarian ideals…which he did to his great credit, reaching millions with the message. R.I.P. good sir.

  11. I enjoyed hearing him on John Stossell’s show. I disagreed with many of his views, but he was a great interview.
    The “certificate of pardon” he gave to white people was dumb. He speaks for himself not all blacks, and there’s plenty of dumb white folks who’d think racism isn’t a problem anymore because Walter Williams said so.

    He also wrote an article on the civil war that was neo-confederate bullshit. Again it could be used as cover for racist whites because Walter Williams wrote it.

    Fuck Rush Limbaugh.

    1. The certificate of pardon was meant to be dumb. *whoosh*

      The same with Limbaugh’s being the official spokesman for the black community and Williams’s being the official spokesman for the white community. These were meant to illustrate that everyone is an individual and how dumb it is for newsmen to look at, say, Al Sharpton, to learn the views of an entire group of people.

      If the Rush Limbaugh show is too nuanced for you to understand, it’s no wonder you could never understand Williams’s more serious work.

  12. Today’s “racial inequality” is actual “racist entitlement” in practice. Why CANNOT the left get past the color of a persons skin???? They’ve been doing this their very roots in the party of slavery.

  13. …asked him whether he saw himself as part of the libertarian movement to which he had contributed so much. No, he said. “I just do my own thing.”

    Hardcore.

  14. Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet: Walter Williams.

  15. Always wanted to meet this man. Too late now. R.I.P., good doctor.

  16. While greatly respecting and learning from Williams’ libertarian economic views, I had an unfortunate encounter with Williams in the early 1990s when he was smoking a cigarette while debating me in a Philly television news station and called me a nicotine Nazi because I was urging Philly City Council to enact an ordinance that banned smoking in virtually all indoor public places.

    Interestingly, both of us claimed to promote liberty and freedom.

    But while I was campaigning to protect everyone’s right to breathe safe/clean air in indoor public places (i.e. the right to not be harmed by the actions of others), Williams claimed he had a right to smoke wherever he desired (i.e. to pollute everyone else’s air).

    I’ve also had a longstanding disagreement with Jacob Sullum over this same issue during the past twenty five years.

    I’ve always stood by the legal doctrine “The right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins”, which I believe was first said/written by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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    2. So, you want government to override a property owner’s choices as to whether to allow smoking or not?

      Speaking as a hard-line Libertarian who is very allergic to tobacco: Fuck off, slaver.

      -jcr

  17. One of the great American heroes. RIP Mr. Williams.

  18. spiral out, Walter. I’ll miss you.

  19. Nice tribute and homage to a true individualist, Nick.

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