Written by The Daily Bell
The Daily Bell is pleased to present an exclusive interview with Walter Williams (left).
Introduction: Dr. Walter E. Williams is the author of over 150 publications which 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 and popular publications such as Newsweek, Ideas on Liberty, National Review, Reader's Digest, Cato Journal, and Policy Review. He has authored six books: America: A Minority Viewpoint, The State Against Blacks, which was later made into the PBS documentary "Good Intentions," All It Takes Is Guts, South Africa's War Against Capitalism, which was later revised for South African publication,
Do the Right Thing: The People's Economist Speaks, and More Liberty Means Less Government. Dr. Williams has received numerous fellowships and awards including: Foundation for Economic Education Adam Smith Award, Hoover Institution National Fellow, Ford Foundation Fellow, Valley Forge Freedoms Foundation George Washington Medal of Honor, Veterans of Foreign Wars U.S. News Media Award, Adam Smith Award, California State University Distinguished Alumnus Award, George Mason University Faculty Member of the Year and Alpha Kappa Psi Award.
Daily Bell: Please answer these questions as if readers were not aware of your books, articles or frequently quoted opinions. How did you become interested in free-market thinking instead of socialism?
Walter Williams: Well, I think that free-market thinking is just an extension of having a respect for basic principals of individual liberty. Individual liberty means that I can negotiate, I can engage in peaceful voluntary exchange with anybody I wish to whether they are Americans or whether they are from Europe, Mexico, Africa or anywhere in the world. So, my free market ideas come from individual liberty.
Daily Bell: Can you give us some background? What were your childhood and young adult influences regarding economics and classical liberalism? Were you influenced by the American Austrian school, Murray Rothbard and others?
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. If you are not familiar with Common Sense, it is what Thomas Payne wrote to rally the American Colonies to rebel against the Crown.
Daily Bell: How did you arrive at your current position? A little more background on your academic success if you don't mind.
Walter Williams: I got married in 1960 but I was drafted in the army in 1959. I was in Korea in 1961 and had a lot of time by myself because I had a lot of problems in the army. I concluded that if I didn't get started, I was never going to be anything. I told my wife that as soon as I get out of the army and we save $700, we are going to leave Philadelphia and we are going to Los Angeles where I can go to college. So I got out of the army July 3, got my old job back with Yellow Cab taxi and by December 1 we were on the road to LA where I went to school at Los Angeles State College, now LA State University, and I went to school continuously. I got a BA in three years and then I transferred to UCLA with the intention of making my Masters Degree my terminal degree. While I was there I received a lot of encouragement to pursue my Doctorate. The encouragement I received made me think, "I know just as much as anybody else here." So I went on and received my Doctorate in 1972.
Daily Bell: What has motivated you to write so well and sensibly? You seem to have a kind of righteous anger about you when it comes to ideas and how people ought to relate to each other. Where does this 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 this and I had a very tenacious mentor at UCLA. He used to pick on me; his name is Armen Alchian, a very distinguished economist. We were in the hallway one day and he said to me, "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 knowing I can explain economics to the ordinary person. At the same time I try to convince my fellow Americans, my fellow citizens of the world, on the moral superiority of individual liberty. The main ingredient for individual liberty is limited government.
Daily Bell: Have you fought against racism in your career? Has it been a big concern for you? How so?
Walter Williams: I guess my first encounter with open racial discrimination would have been in the army on my way to a post assignment that I had in Fort Stewart, Georgia. I woke up on the bus in the middle of the night and on the route that they were traveling, one of the places that they stopped was a rest station where they could buy food and things. There, I saw a sign saying, "Colored waiting room" and "White waiting room," and this was the first time I had seen this. At Fort Stewart, I encountered gross racial discrimination. I just made life very hard for those who were discriminating against black soldiers, hard in the sense of just being a troublemaker, going out of my way to start trouble. I have a new book coming out this Fall, an autobiography. I go into great detail about my life in the military and my life with racial discrimination. But the best thing one can do in terms of fighting discrimination of any type, is try to be the best that you can possibly be as opposed to getting on a soap box and trying to lead people.
Daily Bell: Do matters of race in America concern you?
Walter Williams: I think that black Americans made the greatest gains over the shortest period of time than any other racial group has made. In 1865 neither slave nor slave owner would have believed that the black people would have made the progress that we have made. If you look among black Americans, some of them are among the world's most famous people; black Americans are among some of the wealthiest people. If you add up all the money that black Americans earned each year and you thought of it as a nation, our GDP would be the 16th or the 17th largest in the world. And now we have a black president. In 1865, no black American would believe we would have made this progress in a century and a half, if ever. And this kind of progress speaks well of the intestinal fortitude of a people and also of the nation in which these kinds of gains are possible. These kinds of gains would have been impossible anywhere else in the world - other than in the United States - so it speaks very well of our country. Now that is not saying that our racial problems are over, but there have been large gains.
Daily Bell: Does the black community support Barack Obama in your view, even today? If so, why?
Walter Williams: Oh yes, I think they support Barack Obama because I think black Americans are unfortunately are a one-party people. They just support whoever is the Democrat; they supported Bill Clinton; they supported Jimmy Carter. It is very unfortunate that black people are a one-party people in a two-party system. That's an very unfortunate set of circumstances because it means that one party, namely the Democrats, will take their vote for granted and the Republicans won't even try to get their vote. So it's not the most enviable position to be in.
Daily Bell: How have you seen economics change during your career?
Walter Williams: You know economics, as a theory, does not change anymore than the law of gravity changes. The law of gravity is the same as when Newton wrote about it. So, economic theory is one thing but economic systems are another thing. I think for Americans and for the world in general, the most tragic economic change that the world has come to accept is that one person has the right to live at the expense of another person, which I think is despicable. That is, people all around the world - in Europe, the US or other countries - believe that it's OK for the government to take the property of one citizen and give it to another citizen of whom it does not belong. If a person did that identical thing privately, we would call it theft and we would condemn them. But people ask the government to do these kinds of things. It is way out of tune, at least in the United States, with the values of the founders of our country; they did not share the values that people share today.
Daily Bell: Would you characterize yourself as conservative, libertarian or neither?
Walter Williams: If you had to push me, I would say more libertarian. I would call myself a Jeffersonian liberal. As a matter of fact, the people that call themselves liberal today are for the most part fascists. I think libertarians need to take back the meaning of the word "liberal" because liberal means free. For people that call themselves liberal today, personal freedom is the last thing in 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 have met him and been in his company a number of times. I have 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. We've been longtime associates. I agree with Ron Paul down the line, but we part company on issues of foreign policy. I believe in a strong defense and I believe that on occasions people need to make pre-emptive attacks on people - on countries who would do us great damage. For example, if I had been president during the early thirties, I would have made a pre-emptive attack on Nazi Germany. The very fact that the West did not make a pre-emptive attack when Hitler was violating the Versailles Agreements. That the West chose not to interfere with Hitler's buildup resulted in 60 million poor souls losing their lives in World War II. Intervention could have prevented that. I agree with Congressman Paul on darn near everything he proposes but we part company on foreign policy.
Daily Bell: What is the difference between a conservative and neo conservative if any?
Walter Williams: (Laughing) I don't know. But conservatives and liberals - and I include neo-cons with them - are all people who believe it's all right for government to take the property of one person and give it to another. That is liberals and conservatives prove H.L. Mencken's definition of an election. H.L. Mencken was a political satirist for the Baltimore Sun and when somebody asked him the definition of an election, he said: "An election is an advance auction on the sale of stolen property." Liberals believe in taking yours and my money and giving it to poor people and poor cities. Conservatives believe in taking yours and my money and giving it to farmers, banks and airline companies. They both agree on taking our money but they disagree on what to use it for.
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. The reason why, is because 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.
A lot of people don't really have full appreciation for the values of our Founding Fathers. 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 the purpose of benevolence and it's been the same under all these presidents. Whether you are talking about foreign subsidies, bank bailouts, welfare programs, food stamps, Medicare, prescription drugs, etc. 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 and I think it's despicable and I think it's theft, legalized theft.
Daily Bell: What is your opinion of America? Is it like Rome in the empire days?
Walter Williams: Yes. People say, "Well what can we do, what can be done?" And I say, "Well, how are Americans any different from other great empires of the past?" Rome? England? Spain? Portugal? France? They all went down the tubes for precisely the same thing. Bread and circuses! In 1892, if someone had suggested during Queen Victoria's Jubilee that England would become a 3rd-world nation and be challenged on the high seas by a 6th-rate nation such as Argentina, you would have been put into an insane asylum. But it went down the tubes for precisely what we are doing in our country now - what we have been doing for the past 30 or 40 or 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. That is not my view.
Daily Bell: Are you pro EU? Will the EU survive?
Walter Williams: You know Milton Friedman predicted the EU will survive until one or two countries get in trouble. It looks like Greece and the PIGS are having some problems now. It looks as if 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, it is doomed to eventually fail?
Walter Williams: No, I think the Chinese are a true success story and the country is moving towards freer markets and towards a more open system of capitalism. It is not a capitalist country today, but you do find that 300 million people, 400 or 500 hundred million people perhaps, have been lifted out of poverty without any government poverty programs. It's just the free-market helping them out of poverty and I would encourage the people in China to continue on. They are moving in the right direction. Perhaps they are not moving fast enough, thoroughly enough or complete enough, but they are damn sure a lot better off than they were.
Daily Bell: What do you think will be the result of the current economic crisis, depression, hyperinflation or both? Or neither?
Walter Williams: If I had an answer to that, I would take a long short position in the market and be 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. It didn't help at all. Read what happened during the Great Depression and the New Deal in 1938. Roosevelt's Secretary Treasurer 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 the office."
Daily Bell: Where are gold and silver headed?
Walter Williams: They've been headed up, but where they're going is another question. As economies become more uncertain people have always sought safety in precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum.
Daily Bell: Are gold and silver manipulated, price-wise by Wall Street and the federal government?
Walter Williams: I don't think so. Fort Knox reportedly has tons and tons of gold and can surely influence the gold market by dumping it on the market. I would be very glad if they did dump it on the market because I don't believe the federal government should have that much gold.
Daily Bell: Do you oppose central banking? Would you like to see a return in America and the world to a form of free-banking as enunciated by George Selgin, George White, Antal Fekete, et. al.?
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 very good for our country; that is, a central bank allows the government to steal from its citizens with impunity. I have often suggested to people that if they ever find themselves in court facing a charge of counterfeiting, they should tell the judge they were engaging in monetary policy.
Daily Bell: Are you disappointed that the Fed is not going to receive a more thorough audit?
Walter Williams: I don't know a lot about it. I know Ron Paul has been pushing for it for a number of years. I think it should receive a thorough audit. They should not have the kind of power that they have over our lives - life and death power; they should be audited.
Daily Bell: Would you like to see the Fed abolished? Would you like to return to a gold or gold and silver standard?
Walter Williams: Well I am not sure we can go back. The very fact that we went for a long time in our history without a central bank, from the time of Andrew Jackson and the Second National Bank until the Federal Reserve Bank, and had prosperity in our country during that period shows that the Fed is not absolutely necessary. The justification for its creation was to end bank failures and have stability in price levels. However, if you do a before and after study, there were a greater number of bank failures after the Federal Reserve bank was established than before it came into being. And price stability was greater before its enactment as well. In terms of its stated mission, it's a total failure.
Daily Bell: Do you agree with Dr. Fekete and the neo-Austrians that the quantity theory of money is flawed? Are you a fan of the real-bills doctrine?
Walter Williams: I don't know much about monetary theory. In terms of monetary theory, I would consider myself to be more a Milton Friedman man.
Daily Bell: What is your opinion of the Internet? Has it changed the tone and context of the conversation in America and the world regarding freedom and free-market economics?
Walter Williams: Yes, definitely. I think the Internet has enhanced everyone's freedom all around the world. I think this is one of the reasons why you hear increasing noise by governments wanting to take control of the Internet. I think it is a very valuable tool as it allows people to communicate with one another in microseconds around the world. The Internet gives us a lot of freedom, however governments don't like these kinds of freedoms for its citizens. So, the Internet is a real plus. Also the Internet is a valuable tool for gathering information and research. I personally haven't been to a library in five years. It's been a big boon to intellectual achievements. I don't think the government will ever get a firm grip on the Internet. I also believe the Internet is going a long way to putting the US Postal Service out of business.
Daily Bell: Are you in favor of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Walter Williams: I don't think so. What one can say about the Iraq war is that 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 mistake is more costly? We could have assumed that he had weapons of mass destructions (WMDs) when in fact he did not, or we could have assumed that he did not have WMDs when in fact he did? I think the latter error is more costly. Keep in mind; intelligence is fraught with mistakes and errors. This is one of the reasons why the allies spent so much time and effort trying to defeat Hitler before they defeated Japan. Our intelligence said that the Germans were very close to having nuclear weapons. Well, it turns out after the war, we found out that they were nowhere nearly as close as we thought they were.
In terms of the war and what is going on now, if I was president, I would have toppled the Iraq regime and left. I wouldn't be involved in nation building. We should have made it impossible for him to threaten any neighbors, or threaten our oil supplies, etc. But we have made a mistake by trying to nation build and it's been very costly in terms of lives, treasury and goodwill around the world. 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 and very bad 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. I would not send a single troop over there at all.
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 somehow I would have an orderly withdrawal of our troops.
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 is dependent on borrowing. This is a serious problem. 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 the GDP. We are in serious trouble because of it.
Daily Bell: You mentioned Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Are there other important seminal articles or books that you would encourage everyone 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. A French economist, I think he died in 1850; his little book The Law, has been a great influence on a number of great people including Hayek and Friedman - and the book is readily available at FEE.org.
Daily Bell: Anything else you wish to mention; any upcoming books or lectures?
Walter Williams: Well, I have two books coming out this year - my autobiography that people have been trying to get me to do for a number of years and another book that is called Race and Economics. Both will be out at the end of the year and published by the Hoover Institution.
Daily Bell: In closing, any final words to our readers?
Walter Williams: I would like to say that everybody ought to try to convince his or her fellow countrymen to support personal liberty and it's main ingredient, which is limited government.
Daily Bell: It's been an honor to speak with you
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.
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