“Walter E. Williams: One of a Kind”

by Don Boudreaux on January 12, 2022

in Archived writings, Economics, Philosophy of Freedom

My Liberty Matters essay on my late, great colleague Walter Williams is now up, and can be found by scrolling down at this link. Two slices:

Walter Williams (1936-2020) catapulted into my consciousness in the late 1970s. One afternoon while flipping through the channels – numbering all of five – on my parents’ television set I happened upon television talk-show host Phil Donohue chatting with a guest who made unusually good sense.

By then I’d already fallen in love with economics; it was my collegiate major, and I was, I think, then in my junior year. The guest’s uncompromising and eloquent defense of free markets pleasantly surprised me. I was even more surprised that he was black. I knew that free-market policies were promoted by white guys such as Milton Friedman and William Simon. But Walter Williams – Donohue’s guest – was the first black person I’d seen doing so.

Donahue peppered Walter with questions – ‘Should we abolish the minimum wage?’ Yes. ‘Don’t you agree that labor unions were key to creating America’s middle class?’ No. ‘Hasn’t the welfare state helped Blacks?’ No. ‘Isn’t affirmative action needed to give minorities a fair chance?’ No. On and on this questioning went until Donohue asked Walter about some arms-control treaty between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Walter paused for a moment, then laughed and said “Unlike you, Mr. Donohue, I don’t pretend to know everything about everything.”

Donohue cut for a commercial break. (Not long before he died, I asked Walter if my recollection of his appearance on Donohue was accurate. He assured me that it was.)

I scribbled the name ‘Walter Williams’ into a notebook. I wanted to know more about this man’s work but in that pre-Internet age found little to read. Nevertheless, I was reassured to know that there was in the world this articulate, charismatic, informed, and principled champion of economic freedom.

The next time I encountered Walter was again on television during his appearance on Friedman’s 1980 Free To Choose program. I enthusiastically soaked it all in. I was a fan-boy.

…..

A third characteristic was Walter’s unusual facility with basic economic reasoning. An economist’s skill is perhaps best measured by how much complex economic reality he or she can explain using only economic principles. Any mediocre economist can explain a good deal of economic reality by using the whole armament, including the jargon, that comes with PhD-level training. But only the finest economists can explain that same reality – and often explain it more fully and clearly – using only basic economic propositions. Milton Friedman was notable for possessing this rare skill, as is Thomas Sowell. Walter was in their league.

Possession of this skill is key to the ability to communicate profound economic understanding to general audiences. An example is Walter’s explanation of why minimum-wage legislation has a worse impact on Blacks than it has on whites:

What minimum wage laws do is lower the cost of, and hence subsidize, racial preference indulgence. After all, if an employer must pay the same wage no matter whom he hires, the cost of discriminating in favor of the people he prefers is cheaper. This is a general principle. If filet mignon sold for $9 a pound and chuck steak $4, the cost of discriminating in favor of filet mignon is $5 a pound, the price difference. But if a law mandating a minimum price for chuck steak were on the books, say, $7 a pound, it would lower the cost of discrimination against chuck steak.

Within this example is evidence of the fourth of Walter’s notable characteristics – namely, his skillful use of what I call “gentle, humorous shock.” Walter understood that an effective way to grab an audience’s attention is with a bit of shock mixed with humor. Not shock that’s gross or grotesque. Not shock or humor for the sake of themselves. But shock and humor that are just enough to seize a reader’s or listener’s attention and to intellectually stir that person into letting go of prior misconceptions. Comparing low-skilled workers to inferior cuts of meat shocks people, and even offends many. But the comparison works well to convey the economic lesson.

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