Walter E. Williams, PhD

Walter Williams died in December 2020 after a distinguished career as an economist and professor at George Mason University. He had the almost unique ability to make complicated things simple by looking one layer deeper into the question.

It is a useful skill to develop.

Some thoughts

Can there be free things? According to Professor Williams, free is a local condition. You might get something at no cost to you. There are no globally free things. Somebody pays.

“How many times have we heard “free tuition,” “free health care,” and free you-name-it? If a particular good or service is truly free, we can have as much of it as we want without the sacrifice of other goods or services. Take a “free” library; is it really free? The answer is no. Had the library not been built, that $50 million could have purchased something else. That something else sacrificed is the cost of the library. While users of the library might pay a zero price, zero price and free are not one and the same. So when politicians talk about providing something free, ask them to identify the beneficent Santa Claus or tooth fairy.”

Laws are the lowest form of morality. To overvalue legal is a mistake. Have higher standards. Laws are “the last desperate line of defence”

“Legality alone is no guide for a moral people. There are many things in this world that have been, or are, legal but clearly immoral. Slavery was legal. Did that make it moral? South Africa’s apartheid, Nazi persecution of Jews, and Stalinist and Maoist purges were all legal, but did that make them moral?”

“You say, “Williams, you’re just old-fashioned and out of touch with modern society.” Maybe so, but I think that a society’s first line of defense is not the law but customs, traditions and moral values. These behavioral norms — transmitted by example, word of mouth, religious teachings, rules of etiquette and manners — represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. They include important legal thou-shalt-nots — such as shalt not murder, steal, lie or cheat — but they also include all those civilities one might call ladylike or gentlemanly behavior. Police officers and courts can never replace these social restraints on personal conduct. At best, laws, police and the criminal justice system are a society’s last desperate line of defense.”

We author our own political problems. Politicians are like the rest of us. Looking for people to give us what we want in exchange for what we can offer them. Be sure what we ask is worth the price.

“I don’t blame only politicians. For the most part, they’re only the instruments of a people who have growing contempt for our Constitution. You say, “Hold it, Williams. Now you’ve gone too far!” Check it out. How many votes do you think a James Madison-type senatorial candidate would get if his campaign theme was something like this: “Elect me to office. I will protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. Because there’s no constitutional authority for Congress spending on the objects of benevolence, don’t expect for me to vote for prescription drugs for the elderly, handouts to farmers and food stamps for the poor. Instead, I’ll fight these and other unconstitutional congressional expenditures.” I’ll tell you how many votes he’ll get: It will be Williams’ vote, and that’s it.”

“In general, presidents and congressmen have very limited power to do good for the economy and awesome power to do bad. The best good thing that politicians can do for the economy is to stop doing bad. In part, this can be achieved through reducing taxes and economic regulation, and staying out of our lives.”

“Three-fifths to two-thirds of the federal budget consists of taking property from one American and giving it to another. Were a private person to do the same thing, we’d call it theft. When government does it, we euphemistically call it income redistribution, but that’s exactly what thieves do — redistribute income.”

Look past the obvious truths. Find context.

“The last election campaign {Probably 2008. Maybe 2004}  featured great angst over the loss of manufacturing jobs. The number of U.S. manufacturing jobs has fallen, but it has little to do with outsourcing and a lot to do with technological innovation — and it’s a worldwide phenomenon. During the seven years from 1995 through 2002, Drezner notes, U.S. manufacturing employment fell by 11 percent. Globally, manufacturing jobs fell by 11 percent. China lost 15 percent of its manufacturing jobs, and Brazil lost 20 percent. But guess what. Globally, manufacturing output rose by 30 percent during the same period. Technological progress is the primary cause for the decrease in manufacturing jobs.”

Address the right problem.  You waste time and money when you buy into the wrong version of problems.

“The civil rights struggle is over, and it has been won. At one time, black Americans did not have the same constitutional protections as whites. Now, we do, because the civil rights struggle is over and won is not the same as saying that there are not major problems for a large segment of the black community. What it does say is that they’re not civil rights problems, and to act as if they are, leads to a serious misallocation of resources”

“Here’s Williams’ roadmap out of poverty: Complete high school; get a job, any kind of a job; get married before having children; and be a law-abiding citizen. Among both black and white Americans so described, the poverty rate is in the single digits.”

Is “colonialism harms” a false narrative? Again a context question. Always consider there may well be more than one thing that results in a problem. Avoid lazy thinking

“Maybe your college professor taught that the legacy of colonialism explains Third World poverty. That’s nonsense as well. Canada was a colony. So were Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. In fact, the richest country in the world, the United States, was once a colony. By contrast, Ethiopia, Liberia, Tibet, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan were never colonies, but they are home to the world’s poorest people.”

“Poverty in Egypt, or anywhere else, is not very difficult to explain. There are three basic causes: People are poor because they cannot produce anything highly valued by others. They can produce things highly valued by others but are hampered or prevented from doing so. Or, they volunteer to be poor.”

On Social Justice. There are reasonable answers to the question. They don’t lead to the share of wealth that government’s expropriate, though.

“What’s just has been debated for centuries, but let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well, then, tell me how much of what I earn belongs to you – and why?”

The takeaway

Single dimension problems and their solutions are easy to sell. Politicians and activists do it all the time. They just don’t work in complicated environments like a society. Even in a family or business.

Learn to look for the reason for the reason before you allocate resources to solving any problem.

Look for the meaning of the problem or opportunity.

Something for nothing for you means nothing for something for someone else.

Learn to assess cost/benefit. Almost anything can have a benefit, but few are inexpensive.

You can spend money just once. The money you spend on program A is unavailable for anything else. Do you assess that cost?


I help people have more retirement income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call in Canada 705-927-4770, or email don@moneyfyi.com

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