Like many who have studied economics at George Mason University during the last forty years, I had the great privilege of studying price theory with Walter Williams. The class was very much taught in the UCLA price theory tradition of Armen Alchian. His personal history—growing up in a housing project in Philadelphia, serving in the army, fighting for civil rights, working his way from cab driver to economics professor, and his nearly fifty year marriage to a woman he was clearly deeply in love with—were also important in his teaching. Economics is about the real world and he’d never let you forget it.
His autobiography Up From The Projects and the short documentary film Suffer No Fools are both excellent windows into his thoughtfulness, courage, and kindness. And I say that having never met an economist who wasn’t also a bit prickly, and knowing very well that many who read this will likely know that side of him better than I.
Williams never shied away from tough ideas and delighted in challenging the preconceived notions of his students and his readers. His book The State Against Blacks, now in its third printing, is full of thoughtful economic insight, important history that should not be forgotten, and ideas that many will find uncomfortable. Getting uncomfortable when exploring the big questions is important exercise, regardless of what you ultimately decide to keep and what you decide to leave behind. He was so committed to this work that he worked right up to the last days we were lucky enough to have him with us here on the mortal plane.
Here are a few articles by Williams that I find challenging and informative. I make no claim to them being his best or most important—he was prolific enough to make that determination tricky, and there are many others in a better situation to make that call than I am anyway—but I believe they are a fair representation of his work and priorities.
- “Discrimination: The Law vs. Morality” (2003) explores the concepts of discrimination and prejudice, and what the state can and should be about such matters. His conclusion could be summed up as a kind of Hippocratic oath for economic policy: above all, governments need to stop interfering in ways that exacerbate discrimination.
- Indeed, in a much earlier article entitled “Why The Poor Pay More: An Alternative Explanation,” Williams makes that exact point: “the first thing that researchers and policymakers must insure, when dealing with the problems of poverty, is that they do no harm. To insure against doing harm requires dispassionate analysis that avoids the mere characterization of behavior” (1973, p. 379). The main point of this article is that in focusing too much on observed outcomes around creditworthiness, the true struggles of those facing poverty and discrimination are obscured.
- He pick up this issue again later in “False Civil Rights Vision and Contempt for Rule of Law.” This is a short, critical piece in which he discuss the importance of prioritizing equality of process over equality of outcome. As Williams writes, the levers that are available to us to manipulate an observe outcome may not have any relationship to the actual cause of an injustice. As such focus on outcomes rather than equality in rights and process “allows the true villains to go undiscovered and therefore unconfronted” (1991, p. 1782)
- “How Business Transcends Politics” (1987) addresses apartheid in South Africa, another case he studied in depth along with that of Jim Crow law and Civil Rights in the United States. He reminds us in this article that markets make racial discrimination costly, and that there are many examples of governments forcing people to behave in prejudiced ways for one political reason or another. In short, sometimes the solution is actually the problem.
- In “The Argument for Free Markets: Morality vs. Efficiency” (1996), Williams lays out his argument in favor of a moral argument for free markets, lamenting the “invisible victims” of minimum wage and other interventionist policies who are overlooked both by advocates of those policies and those who focus exclusively on the efficiency of markets.
If you are so moved, I think reading one of these today—even and maybe especially if it makes you a little uncomfortable—would be an excellent tribute.