George Mason University Professor of Economics Walter E. Williams passed away yesterday. He liked to say the E stands for excellent. He grew up poor in Philadelphia hanging out with a young Bill Cosby and their friend Fat Albert. His family instilled in him a strong work ethic and an optimistic spirit. He resented getting drafted in 1959 because he saw it as government confiscation of his property which is how he viewed his productive capacity. Stationed in the South, he was shocked by the racism that confronted him. Proving he was more adept than his peers led to waging a fight against systemic racism in the military which got him shipped off to South Korea before being court marshaled. Defending himself, he was fully exonerated and received an honorable discharge. No wonder he was skeptical of government power.
That skepticism grew when he saw how the 1960s Great Society programs damaged black families. While that became his animating cause, he brought an iconoclastic economic perspective to a wide array of issues. He had an uncanny ability to break economic questions into simple components that non-scholars like me could grasp. Such as if a $15 minimum wage is good, wouldn’t $20 be better? If so, $30 would be better still as would even higher levels. He saw the minimum wage as a barrier to black employment and believed employers and workers should be free to make their own agreements. More currently he feared “the biggest casualty from the COVID-19 pandemic has nothing to do with the disease. It’s the power we’ve given to politicians and bureaucrats. The question is how we recover our freedoms.”
He tried not to impose his conservative voice, lent on occasion to the Rush Limbaugh Show, on his students and colleagues. His scholarly portfolio of classical economics encompasses more than 150 publications in addition to 13 books. One of which, Up From the Projects, was made into a PBS documentary available on his website. Take a look if you want to get a different viewpoint than you’re used to seeing. In it, he asks Phil Donahue “Who owns you?” Before answering with John Locke’s philosophy that we own ourselves and all the inalienable rights that God has given us. He viewed respect for property rights as a moral issue seeing systemic racism as devaluing certain people’s productive capacity. One of his favorite quotes is: “Prior to capitalism, the way people amassed great wealth was by looting, plundering and enslaving their fellow man. Capitalism made it possible to become wealthy by serving your fellow man.”
Rest in peace Walter E. Williams.