Passing Thoughts on Walter Williams

I see that Walter Williams, an influential and distinguished American proto-libertarian economist, professor, and political columnist, has died. A few thoughts, as they occur to me.

To be an American black man and a classical liberal at the same time is to put a big X on one’s forehead and one’s life, in contemporary political and “cultural” terms. Williams followed this path, unwaveringly and unapologetically, for over fifty years. 

I always smiled at his weird and quirky writing habit of referring to himself in the third person as “Williams,” as in “‘But Williams,’ you object, ‘how can anyone support laissez-faire capitalism when there is so much poverty in the world?'” (He would then typically answer such imaginary interlocutors’ questions with pithy aplomb.)

I generally have little respect for economics as a pseudoscience (aka “social science”), or for economists themselves as specialists, who therefore necessarily have a distortingly narrow and single-minded focus in addressing all human concerns. Having said that, Williams is one of the very few (Thomas Sowell is another) whose intellect and interests are broad enough to at least moderate his specialist’s tendency to view all things through the filter of his specialty. He sometimes left me preferring a broader perspective, but he rarely left me frustrated at his narrowmindedness as economists of all political stripes (and other social scientists as well) usually do.

I am aware of no contemporary “black intellectual” on the American left who has half the intellect, urbanity, logical skills, or essential humanity of Walter Williams. And if you removed the gratuitous and politically stupid adjective “black,” the basic sense of the previous sentence would likely change very little.

As a very young man, my first true political incarnation was slightly more in line with Williams’ laissez-faire emphasis and libertarian political identity than the way I see myself now. However, given the nature of the man’s specialty, and the essential perspective problem of all specialists, I doubt I could have much respect for any economist who was not a laissez-faire libertarian at heart. Any alternatives, from an economics point of view, could only be much worse.

Williams had some praise for Trump’s presidential accomplishments, though not for Trump the man, a qualification that somewhat saves any Trump praise for me, even when I disagree with the praise in question. In general, Williams was, for my money, far too sanguine about Trump’s foreign policy deal-making, particularly regarding (what I see as) his North Korea debacle; far too willing to give Trump personal credit for his by-the-book “conservative supreme court appointments,” which have yet to prove themselves significantly, one way or the other; and far too eager to congratulate Trump for his supposedly Reaganesque tax cuts, even though these were accompanied by his signing non-wartime spending bills that blew the national debt into an even more impossible stratosphere. Williams was, however, consistent with himself in condemning Trump’s tariff nonsense as an abomination, a typical government game of seeking political advantage through policies designed to produce “seen beneficiaries and unseen victims.” 

Williams’ fifty-year friend Thomas Sowell briefly summarized his public thoughts about Williams’ life with two reflections perfectly pitched for my character, and attuned to my kind of unsentimental heartstrings.

First this:

Walter Williams loved teaching. Unlike too many other teachers today, he made it a point never to impose his opinions on his students. Those who read his syndicated newspaper columns know that he expressed his opinions boldly and unequivocally there. But not in the classroom.

Walter once said he hoped that, on the day he died, he would have taught a class that day. And that is just the way it was, when he died Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020.

And then this:

Walter liked to go to his job at 4:30 a.m. He was the only person who had no problem finding a parking space on the street in downtown Washington. Around 9 o’clock or so, [his wife] Connie — now awake — would phone Walter and they would greet each other tenderly for the day.

I like that.

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