Walter E. Williams
Economics, Race, and Liberty
You may know Walter Williams best from his role as a substitute host on Rush Limbaugh’s number-one-rated radio program. But Williams has had a distinguished career as a teacher, scholar, and opinion leader. He has served as George Mason University’s John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics since 1980 and is a nationally syndicated columnist who writes frequently for both scholarly and popular publications. He is also the author of ten books, including The State against Blacks, More Liberty Means Less Government, Up from the Projects, and Race and Economics.
Professor Williams agreed to answer questions from ISI students about economics, race, and liberty.
How can conservatives reframe the free-market narrative to be more appealing to Americans concerned about “social justice”?
—Bradley Rebeiro, Brigham Young University
Remind people that coercion is nothing new, that there’s nothing older than the notion that some people should give orders and others should follow them. Tyrants have always distrusted free markets and voluntary exchange; they don’t trust that people acting freely will do as the tyrant thinks they should do. Many Americans want the government to take money from one citizen to give it to another. We need to remind them that, as Nobel Prize–winning economist F. A. Hayek said, government programs created with “good” intentions almost always end up harming more people than they help—and we need to learn the facts on how that happens. The best spokesmen at the national level for liberty right now are in the Tea Party movement, which is shifting the conversation to question how Congress has exceeded its constitutionally mandated functions.
You have argued for the right of individuals to sell their own organs. What would be the consequences and the moral implications of such a practice?
—Arrianne Talma, University of Virginia
The true test of whether somebody owns something is whether he can sell it. If you believe in liberty, you think people can do what they wish with their property if it doesn’t violate the rights of others. As to consequences, selling organs would reduce the scarcity. Some eighty thousand people are awaiting organs in America. Many of those people will die waiting for an organ. If people could sell organs, there would be a greater supply. Imagine the tragedy if we had to depend on voluntary donations for our cars, houses, clothing, or food. But organs are even more important. It’s rather cruel to force people to depend on the goodwill of others for their very survival.
You have been a vocal critic of the Federal Reserve. Are there any ways to rein in the Fed’s often pernicious influence?
—Ian Tuttle, St. John’s College
Although it will be difficult, we must return to some kind of gold standard, which would act as monetary discipline. The Fed can now print all the money it wants, and can do many other things it has no business doing. The central justifications given for establishing the Fed in 1913 were to prevent bank failure and maintain price stability. But both of those problems got worse in its wake. How wise is it for Americans to grant twelve people on the Fed board life-and-death power over our economy?
How do you recommend that nonblack students approach questions about racism?
—Kelsey Rupp, University of North Carolina
You should point out that black Americans as a group have made the largest gains over some of the highest hurdles in the shortest time of any group in history. If black Americans were a nation, they would be the sixteenth richest on earth. Some of the richest, and most famous, people in the world are black Americans. Colin Powell led the mightiest army in human history. In 1865 neither a slave nor a slave owner would have believed this kind of progress was possible in a little over a century, if ever. As such it speaks to the intestinal fortitude of a people and, just as important, to the greatness of the nation where such gains were possible—gains that would have been impossible anywhere except in the United States.
But for many blacks, these gains are elusive—perhaps for 30 percent of our community. It does the poor no favors to blame their problems on racism—which has been diminishing as the pathologies got worse. In 1940 the black illegitimacy rate was around 14 percent. Now it’s 75 percent. In 1870, right after slavery, 70 to 80 percent of black families were intact. Now only 30 percent of black kids live in two-parent families. Some 51 percent of homicide victims are black, as are 95 percent of their killers. You can’t really blame this on white people. The rotten schools black kids attend are mostly in cities where black adults are in control and spending a lot of taxpayers’ money on those schools. White people have to get some backbone and not be mau-maued into silence by fear of being called racist. On my website (walterewilliams.com/gift.html), I offer a proclamation of amnesty and pardon to all persons of European ancestry for slavery and discrimination. Print it out and keep it in your pocket.
In a recent lecture you said, “The big task before us is to somehow convince our fellow Americans of the moral superiority of personal liberty.” How do we do that?
—Caroline Emberton, Cornell University
I’d start with the concept of “self-ownership.” You don’t own me, and I don’t own you. Then I’d point to the fact that reaching into your own pockets to help your fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into another’s pockets to do the same is despicable and deserving of condemnation. In that regard, I’d point out that when God gave Moses the commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” he didn’t add “unless you got a majority vote in Congress.” Check out walterewilliams.com for more such arguments.
What would you recommend for the non–economics major who wants to better understand Austrian economics?
—Samuel Klee, Aquinas College
The most comprehensive and easily accessible resource is “The Austrian School of Economics,” by my colleague Peter Boettke, at econlib.org. Follow his references for more.