Appreciating Walter Williams
By David Henderson
On December 2, just hours after teaching his last class at George Mason University, economist Walter Williams died. He was eighty-four. That same day, I wrote a short appreciation of Walter that led to something unprecedented in my twelve years of blogging: comments by dozens of people, almost none of whom I knew, all complimentary. Our blog, EconLog, is one of the best at weeding out nasty, abusive comments. This time, though, there was nothing to weed out.
It’s easy to see why because Walter was an attractive person in so many ways. He had an inquisitive mind, a powerful work ethic, incredible courage, a great sense of humor, a strong sense of justice, and an ability not just to teach economic understanding but also to sell economic freedom. He did so in hundreds of syndicated columns written over four decades. If you want to understand what was so compelling about the man, you could do no better than read his 2010 autobiography, Up from the Projects. But Walter would have been the first person to remind you that your time is your most valuable resource. So if you’re in a time crunch, read my article instead.
These are the opening two paragraphs of David R. Henderson, “Appreciating Walter Williams,” Defining Ideas, January 22, 2021.
Another excerpt about Walter’s mischievous but also courageous streak:
Walter showed courage and creativity, along with a mischievous streak a mile wide, as a young man dealing with racism. Some of the most impressive and humorous parts of his book are his stories of his time as an Army draftee, from 1959 to 1961, in Georgia and South Korea. At Fort Stewart in Georgia, Walter quickly learned that although the Army was formally desegregated, the best jobs went to white men. When he was assigned to an Army motor pool, he had to wash trucks and jeeps rather than working as a mechanic or mechanic’s helper. A sergeant who caught him reading on the job ordered him to paint a truck. Although Walter knew that the sergeant meant for him to paint the flat bed, he saw his opportunity. “The whole thing?” he asked. The sergeant answered “yes,” but regretted it. After Walter started painting the window and the tires, a lieutenant asked him what the [expletive deleted] he was doing. Walter writes, “I responded, in my best Southern Stepin Fetchit accent, ‘Boss, de sergeant told me to paint de whole truck; Ah’s just doin’ what he say.’ ”
Also, a note about Walter following the logic to wherever it leads:
Walter also followed economic analysis to sometimes surprising conclusions. My favorite example is a 1997 column titled “Extortion or Voluntary Exchange.” In it, he tells of a young woman, Autumn Jackson, who asked Bill Cosby for $40 million “in exchange for her silence about being his illegitimate daughter.” Jackson was convicted of extortion. But Walter points out that she simply offered an exchange that Cosby was free to reject. Walter notes that we should worry about extortion when people threaten violence. If we did, he argues, we would put our attention not on Ms. Jackson, but on the US Congress, which, with legislation, regularly threatens us with violence. He gives the example of Social Security and Medicare. If you don’t pay those taxes, he writes, they will threaten to take our property and/or put us in jail. If we resist, they will authorize their agents to use violence. If Autumn Jackson had offered Cosby such a deal, writes Walter, he would say, “Jail her for life!”
Read the whole thing.