Manhattan Institute

Hard-Nosed Economist, Generous Soul

Walter E. Williams died on Tuesday night after teaching his cherished class in price theory to first-year graduate students. Walter was an old school economic thinker, and he pursued the logic of economic reasoning consistently and persistently. Generations of graduate students at George Mason University, where he taught since 1980, learned their lessons in price theory through his engaging and challenging Socratic dialogue, applying theory to vexing puzzles in the world.

James Buchanan, a former colleague of Walter’s at George Mason University and one of his teachers at UCLA, argued that properly trained economists are committed to basic economic principles. This commitment enables ordinary individuals to rise to the height of observational genius, whereas a genius without the tools of the economic way of thinking can be reduced to mistaking noise for sense. Walter always made sense because he was a properly trained economist, and he gave credit for that to Buchanan, Armen Alchian, and Milton Friedman.

Walter was an astute economic thinker, and he focused his critical mind on serious questions in labor economics from the beginning of his career. His research studied the impact of government policies on economic opportunities of the disadvantaged, particularly minorities. His views were clearly argued and backed by data, but throughout his career his ideas were always contested and at times controversial. Walter did not seek confrontation for the sake of confrontation, nor did he run away from it. He sought truth in the human condition aided by the rigorous logic of economic reasoning and the discipline of the scientific method. Like his teachers, he was confronted with doubters for his analysis of the negative consequences of public policies designed to help the poor but that instead further disadvantaged them. He tried to get those doubters to see through received political rhetoric, to get them to study the world as it is, not the fanciful one they might imagine. Friedman convinced him to write for the general public. If you can’t explain an economic concept in less than 800 words, Friedman reportedly told him, you don’t know the concept that well. Walter worked to hone his craft as a thinker and communicator.

He published 13 books. The State Against Blacks (1982), written in affiliation with the Manhattan Institute, and South Africa’s War Against Capitalism (1989) are his most powerful analytically. He also published dozens of academic papers in various professional journals and law reviews. These pieces challenge conventional wisdom, based on economic reasoning and weighing the evidence judiciously. But Walter’s primary vehicle for communicating the results of his studies was the opinion editorial and appearances on popular radio and television shows. He took Friedman’s challenge to communicate in under 800 words seriously, and he mastered that skill and became “the people’s economist.”

He understood that economic processes take place against a backdrop of politics, law, and social mores and beliefs. He understood, as his long-time friend and colleague Thomas Sowell stressed, the first lesson of economics: We live in a world of scarcity, and thus we are required constantly to weigh trade-offs. In contrast, the first rule of politics is to deny that scarcity exists. In insisting that we never forget that hard choices must be made, Walter’s commentaries rained on the parade of promises from politicians and exposed the pretensions of the powerful. This led him to include moral arguments about personal responsibility and a deep commitment to liberty in his popular writings. His main argument was that human history is a story of the domination and arbitrary abuse of the powerful over the lives of ordinary individuals. What made America special was that we had found a set of formal institutions of governance and informal norms of morality that kept this power in check. Walter hoped that history would not record this period as an aberration, but rather as a critical turning point toward wider freedom. His advice to policymakers: adopt your own version of the Hippocratic oath and do no harm. Political institutions must not exhibit either domination or discrimination if progress toward greater freedom and prosperity is to be achieved.

Walter Williams was a towering figure in my life, both literally and figuratively. He was extremely generous to me throughout my career when it was most needed, including hiring me to join him on the faculty at George Mason University in 1998. We originally bonded in my student days over early morning coffee conversations in the 1980s and developed a closer bond in the years since over the critical importance of teaching sound economics to students. He cared deeply about the craft of teaching economics and communicating economic sense as efficaciously as possible. He urged those around him to learn economics with deep commitment and passion, as if you were to live forever, and to teach economics with a sense of urgency and purpose, as if you were going to die tomorrow.

He did all this with a sense of humor and pure joy. His mischievous smile and infectious laugh will be greatly missed in the halls of George Mason. He may have challenged all of us with hard questions born of the hard-nosed logic of economic reasoning, but he taught and interacted with all of us as a generous soul. He sponsored essay contests for students, provided students with scholarships and fellowships, and offered advice and assistance whenever asked.

Rest in peace, Professor Williams. You taught generations of students to think like economists, to teach their own students with passion and purpose, and to communicate the basic principles of economics with wit and wisdom.

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