Exclusive Interviews
Walter Williams on the Tyranny of the Majority, the US Federal Budget and Free-Market Thinking
By Anthony Wile - August 01, 2010

Introduction: Dr. Walter E. Williams is the author of over 150 articles on social topics. Some have appeared in scholarly journals, such as Economic Inquiry, American Economic Review, Georgia Law Review, Journal of Labor Economics, Social Science Quarterly and Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. Others have appeared in general circulation publications, such as Newsweek, Ideas on Liberty, National Review, Reader's Digest, Cato Journal and Policy Review. Dr. Williams is the author of six books: America: A Minority Viewpoint, The State Against Blacks (the basis for the PBS production "Good Intentions"), All It Takes Is Guts, South Africa's War Against Capitalism, Do the Right Thing: The People's Economist Speaks and More Liberty Means Less Government. Dr. Williams has been named a Hoover Institution National Fellow and a Ford Foundation Fellow. He has received the Foundation for Economic Education Adam Smith Award, the Valley Forge Freedoms Foundation George Washington Medal of Honor, the Veterans of Foreign Wars U.S. News Media Award, the Adam Smith Award, the California State University Distinguished Alumnus Award and the George Mason University Faculty Member of the Year and Alpha Kappa Psi Award.

Daily Bell: Dr. Williams, how were you attracted to free-market thinking?

Walter Williams: Free-market thinking grows out of a respect for the basic principles of individual liberty. If I am free, then I can negotiate, I can trade with anybody I wish to whether that person is American or whether he came from Europe, Mexico, Africa or anywhere else. If any third party interferes, then I am that much less free.

Daily Bell: Can you give us some background? Can you identify any influences early in life that pointed you toward classical liberalism? Were you influenced by the American exponents of the Austrian school, such as Murray Rothbard?

Walter Williams: No, I was not. And if I can identify anybody, it was Thomas Payne, who wrote Common Sense, which I have read a number of times. It was a pamphlet that Thomas Payne wrote to rally the American Colonies to rebel against the Crown.

Daily Bell: Tell us how your professional career has developed.

Walter Williams: I got married in 1960, but I had been drafted into the Army the year before. I was in Korea in 1961 and had a lot of time on my hands. I saw that if I didn't get started on something, I had no future. I told my wife that as soon as I got out of the Army and we had saved $700, we were going to move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where I could go to college. I got out of the army July 3, returned to my old job with Yellow Cab, and by December 1 we were on the road to California, where I enrolled at Los Angeles State College. I got a bachelor's degree in three years. Then I transferred to UCLA to study for a Masters degree, but I received so much encouragement that I continued for a Ph.D., which I completed in 1972.

Daily Bell: Some of your writing reveals a righteous anger. Where does that come from?

Walter Williams: Again, it goes back to my ideas on liberty and my respect for individual rights. I try to write so that economics is understandable to the ordinary person. I have had a lot of encouragement to do so and I had a tenacious mentor at UCLA, Armen Alchian, who used to pick on me. We were in the hallway one day and he said, "You know, Williams, the true test of whether somebody understands his subject comes when he can explain it to someone who doesn't know a darn thing about it." I take pride in doing that kind of explaining. At the same time I try to convince readers of the moral value of individual liberty.

Daily Bell: Has racism ever interfered with your career?

Walter Williams: My first encounter with open racial discrimination was in the Army, on my way to an assignment at Fort Stewart, Georgia. I woke up on the bus in the middle of the night at a rest station, where I saw a sign saying, "Colored Waiting Room" and another saying "White Waiting Room". At Fort Stewart, I encountered gross racial discrimination. I just made life hard for those who were discriminating against black soldiers, hard in the sense of being a troublemaker. I have a book coming out this fall, an autobiography. I go into detail about my life in the military and the racial discrimination I encountered. But the best thing one can do to resist discrimination of any type is to be the best that you can possibly be, as opposed to getting on a soap box and preaching.

Daily Bell: Do matters of race in America concern you?

Walter Williams: I think that black Americans have advanced more swiftly than any other racial group. In 1865 neither slave nor slave-owner would have believed that black people could make the progress that in fact we have made. Today black Americans are among the world's most famous people and the world's wealthiest people. If black America were a country, its GDP would be the 16th or the 17th largest in the world. And now we have a black President. And this kind of progress speaks well of the intestinal fortitude of a people and of America itself. Nothing like it could happen anywhere else in the world.

Daily Bell: Does the black community still support Barack Obama?

Walter Williams: Oh, yes, I think they support Barack Obama because today black Americans are a one-party people. They just support whoever is the Democrat. They supported Bill Clinton, they supported Jimmy Carter. It' unfortunate, in a two-party system, because it means that one party, namely the Democrats, will take the black vote for granted and the Republicans won't even try to compete for it.

Daily Bell: How have you seen economic thinking change during your career?

Walter Williams: The principles of economics don't not change any more than the working of gravity changes. Gravity is the same as when Newton wrote about it. So, economic theory is one thing, but economic systems are another. The most tragic economic change is that the world has come to accept the notion that one person has the right to live at the expense of another person, which I think is despicable. People all around the world – and in the U.S. – believe it's OK for the government to take the property of one citizen and give it to another. If a person did that identical thing privately, we would call it theft. But it's what people routinely ask the government to do.

Daily Bell: Would you characterize yourself as conservative, a libertarian or something else?

Walter Williams: If pushed to choose between the two, I would say libertarian. But I call myself a Jeffersonian liberal. Today the people who call themselves liberals are for the most part fascists. I think libertarians need to take back the meaning of "liberal," because liberal means free. For today's so-called liberals, personal freedom is the last thing on their mind.

Daily Bell: What do you think of anarcho-libertarianism as championed by Rothbard?

Walter Williams: Well, I think his ideas are very good. I met him a number of times and had nothing but respect for him.

Daily Bell: What do you think of Dr. Ron Paul and his impact on the sociopolitical conversation?

Walter Williams: Ron Paul and I are friends and longtime associates. I agree with Ron Paul on most matters, but we part company on issues of foreign policy. I believe in a strong defense, and I believe there are circumstances that call for pre-emptive attack on people who would do us harm.

Daily Bell: What is the difference between a conservative and neo-conservative, if any?

Walter Williams: (Laughing) I don't know. But conservatives, neo or otherwise, and liberals all believe it's all right for government to take the property of one person and give it to another. They prove H.L. Mencken's definition of an election as "…an advance auction on the sale of stolen property." Liberals believe in taking your money and giving it to poor people and poor cities. Conservatives believe in taking your money and giving it to farmers, banks and airlines. They both agree on taking our money, but they disagree on who should get it.

Daily Bell: Was George Bush a good president? Was he conservative? Are there any good presidents?

Walter Williams: Well my hero of all presidents, at least modern day presidents, is Grover Cleveland. He was the "Veto King." He vetoed more legislation than all presidents before him combined. His veto message to Congress often was that "this is not authorized by the United States Constitution." We don't hear presidents today vetoing acts of Congress because they are not authorized by the Constitution.

Few people appreciate how serious our Founding Fathers were about the Constitution. For example, James Madison is considered the Father of the Constitution. In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 for the relief of French refugees who fled from insurrection in San Domingo to Baltimore and Philadelphia, James Madison stood on the floor of the House to object, saying "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."

Now if you look at the federal budget, two-thirds to three-quarters of it is for benevolence, and it's been the same under all recent Presidents. Whether you are talking about foreign subsidies, bank bailouts, welfare programs, food stamps, Medicare or prescription drugs. There is no tooth fairy or Santa Claus giving the government the money; the only way the government can give one American citizen one dollar is to first take it from some another American. I think it's despicable. It's legalized theft.

Daily Bell: What is your opinion on America's present condition? Is it like Rome in the empire days?

Walter Williams: Yes. Rome? Spain? Portugal? France? They all went down the tubes for precisely the same reason. Bread and circuses! In 1892, if someone had suggested during Queen Victoria's Jubilee that England would become a 3rd-world power and be challenged on the high seas by a 6th-rate power such as Argentina, he would have been put into an insane asylum. But the British Empire went down the tubes for precisely what we are doing in our country now – what we have been doing for the past 50 years. Bread and circuses and big-government spending.

Daily Bell: Are we headed toward an international world government?

Walter Williams: I don't believe that's the case.

Daily Bell: How do you see the European Union. Will the EU survive?

Walter Williams: Milton Friedman predicted the EU would survive until one or two countries get into trouble. It looks like Greece and the PIGS are having some problems now. There is a real question as to whether the Portuguese and the Greeks will allow their domestic policy to be dictated by Germany.

Daily Bell: Is the Chinese miracle real, or is it built in a sense on state planning and, like the USSR, doomed to fail?

Walter Williams: The Chinese are a true success story, and the country is moving toward freer markets and toward a more open system of capitalism. It is not a true capitalist country yet, but you do find that 300 million people, 400 or 500 hundred million people perhaps, have been lifted out of poverty without any government subsidies. It's just the free market helping them out of poverty, and I hope the people in China continue in the same direction.

Daily Bell: What do you think will come of the current economic crisis depression, hyperinflation or both? Or something else?

Walter Williams: If I had an answer to that, I would take a position in the market and become very rich. However, I am not in the crystal ball business.

Daily Bell: Do you think the bailouts in the West help at all?

Walter Williams: No. Read what happened during the Great Depression and the New Deal. in 1938 Roosevelt's Treasury Secretary said, "Mr. President we have spent more money than we have ever spent in the past and it's not doing any good. Unemployment is just as bad as it was and all we've accomplished is we've gotten into more debt and spent more money." That is the same thing Treasurer Secretary Geithner can say today to President Obama, "We have spent more money, but unemployment is the same; in fact it's higher than when he took over."

Daily Bell: Where are gold and silver headed?

Walter Williams: They've been headed up, but where they're going is another question. As conditions become more uncertain, people have always sought safety in precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum.

Daily Bell: Do you oppose central banking? Would you like to see America return to the free-banking recommended by George Selgin, George White and Antal Fekete?

Walter Williams: Yes, I would. I believe that the monopoly over money maintained by the Federal Reserve and the legal tender laws have not been good for our country. A central bank allows the government to steal from its citizens with impunity. I have often suggested that anyone who finds himself in court on a charge of counterfeiting should tell the judge he was engaging in monetary policy.

Daily Bell: Are you disappointed that the Fed is not going to receive a more thorough audit?

Walter Williams: Ron Paul has been pushing for it for a number of years, and I agree.

Daily Bell: Would you like to see the Fed abolished? Would you like to return to a gold or a gold and silver standard?

Walter Williams: I am not sure we can go back. The fact that we prospered for a long time without a central bank, from the time of Andrew Jackson and the Second National Bank until the Federal Reserve, shows that the Fed is not absolutely necessary. But getting to a world without the Federal Reserve would be a difficult transition.

Daily Bell: Has the growth of the Internet affected the tone and context of the conversation in America and the world regarding freedom and free markets?

Walter Williams: Yes, definitely. I think the Internet has enhanced freedom all around the world. Now anyone can reach a worldwide audience. This is one of the reasons you hear increasing noise by governments about controlling the Internet.

Daily Bell: How do you se the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Walter Williams: Our "intelligence" said that Suddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That turned out to be false. But the question we have to ask is which kind of mistake is more costly? We assumed he had weapons WMDs when in fact he did not. But we might have assumed he lacked WMDs when in fact he did. I think the latter kind oferror is more costly. Keep in mind that intelligence is fraught with error. This is one of the reasons the Allies spent so much time and effort trying to defeat Hitler before defeating Japan. Our intelligence said that the Germans were close to having nuclear weapons. But after the war, we found that they were nowhere nearly as close as we had thought.

In terms of the war and what is going on now, if I were President, I would have toppled the Iraq regime and left. I wouldn't be involved in nation building. As far as Iran is concerned, and my libertarian friends get upset with me about this, I think that if Iran gets any nuclear weapons it would be very dangerous for the world. But I would not send a single troop there. I would call Ahmadinejad and say, "We know where your facilities are; we have a Trident submarine off your coast; tell your people to get out, because at 10:00 pm two days from now we are going to start destroying your facilities."

Daily Bell: Generally, would you like to see the troops come back home?

Walter Williams: Yes, I would. I would not give them a date. I am not a military person, but I would like an orderly withdrawal.

Daily Bell: What is the most important problem facing America right now?

Walter Williams: I think the growth of government. The amount of money we spend on Medicare, Social Security, Prescription Drugs, etc., eats up the entire federal revenues, and the rest of government lives on borrowed money. We are spending too much. From 1787 until 1920, the federal government spent just 3% of the GDP except during wartime. Today it's close to 30% of GDP. We are in serious trouble because of the spending.

Daily Bell: You mentioned Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Are there other seminal articles or books that you encourage people to read? Where can they be found?

Walter Williams: An important book and certainly one that was a great influence on me was Federic Bastiat's The Law. The book also influenced a number of great thinkers, including Hayek and Friedman. It's available at FEE.org.

Daily Bell: Anything else you wish to mention; any upcoming books or lectures?

Walter Williams: I have two books coming out this year – the autobiography that people have been trying to get me to do for a number of years and a second work called Race and Economics. Both will be published by the Hoover Institution.

Daily Bell: Dr.Williams, it's been an honor to speak with you.

After Thoughts

Dr. Walter Williams has been a bright light in the US free-market firmament for decades now. Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, even in the 1970s, his was one of only a few "mainstream" voices regularly raised to support freedom and free-markets. We always laughed when we heard his great, booming voice on the radio and the affectionate way he made fun of "Mrs. Williams" – always Mrs. Williams because he was always very respectful of her even when teasing her. It was generally his sense of humor that was so surprising to us, especially once we discovered that he was a black person. This was the anti-Jesse-Jackson, we decided.

Where Jesse Jackson was truculent and always blaming the white race and imputing racism to ever-newer generations, we didn't sense any of this emanating from Dr. Williams. Jesse Jackson was always in the news whenever there was a "racial" incident, explaining how such problems confirmed that America was still a racist society. Implicit in Jackson's perspective (and others like him) was the idea that it was black leaders alone that were "perfected" by the crucible of race-in-America and that he therefore (and a few others) were alone granted the historical moral authority to comment on the United States.

We never got this feeling when hearing Dr. Williams speak. Dr. Williams was not obsessed with race or with being a black man in America (or we couldn't detect it, anyway). He seemed to speak first as a human being, and one who was concerned about HUMAN freedom, rather than black-versus-white freedom. Of course, being a black person in America (and being Dr. Williams) we never got the feeling he hid from the issue either, or was reluctant to mention it. It was just that he kept it in perspective.

He was a human being first and a black person in America second (or maybe third or fourth). He was Mrs. William's husband, a successful educator and also a freedom fighter in no particular order. (He also supported the second amendment, and we knew that because when he expounded on threats to freedom, he would sometimes mention "reaching for my gun" in a tone that was as meaningful as it was humorous.)

He was certainly no "race hustler" in an era where so many other prominent black men were milking money from the federal government especially (and large corporations as well) by institutionalizing black victimization and white guilt. In fact, with his usual sense of humor, he went about making sure that white people were comfortable in his presence by issuing his own proclamation that absolved white people. It reads as follows and can be found on his website:

Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon Granted to … All Persons of European Descent

Whereas, Europeans kept my forebears in bondage some three centuries toiling without pay,

Whereas, Europeans ignored the human rights pledges of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution,

Whereas, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments meant little more than empty words,

Therefore, Americans of European ancestry are guilty of great crimes against my ancestors and their progeny.

But, in the recognition Europeans themselves have been victims of various and sundry human rights violations to wit: the Norman Conquest, the Irish Potato Famine, Decline of the Hapsburg Dynasty, Napoleonic and Czarist adventurism, and gratuitous insults and speculations about the intelligence of Europeans of Polish descent, I, Walter E. Williams, do declare full and general amnesty and pardon to all persons of European ancestry, for both their own grievances, and those of their forebears, against my people.

Therefore, from this day forward Americans of European ancestry can stand straight and proud knowing they are without guilt and thus obliged not to act like damn fools in their relationships with Americans of African ancestry.

Walter E. Williams, Gracious and Generous Grantor

This is vintage Walter Williams. He is well aware of the difficulties of race in America but unlike others in his position he never chose to exploit racial divisiveness to make a living. Instead, being a scholar and a gentleman, he acknowledges that the human condition itself is full of exploitation and misery and that white Europeans have experienced their share as well. This is the difference between an educated man who has spent his life raising up civil society and others who spend their lives tearing down civil society brick by brick to make a living.

We could comment on the above interview in many other ways as well, but we really have no wish to. Others are welcome to do so – and we know they can focus on his comments regarding military first strikes, etc. and a lack of pronounced perspective on monetarism. But people should realize when they are doing so that Dr. Williams was making a courageous stand for freedom at a time when few voices were raised on its behalf in the United States. Sure, there were pro-forma celebrations, flag-waving, etc., but Dr. Williams went beyond that, attempting to explain the virtues of free-markets in a substantive way.

Yes, throughout his career Dr. Williams has been a courageous, even lonely, voice, standing against black victimization and for freedom at a time when there were very few voices to be heard sounding his sentiments. He has spent his life attempting to explain "real" economics; he did so at a time when such discussions had all-but-flickered-out. He provided a bridge between that barren age and the incredibly substantive and energetic conversation going on today in the Western world and especially in America. He is a pioneer; we look forward to his autobiography; we are certainly glad we had a chance to interview him.

Posted in Exclusive Interviews