Funny, charming, and persuasive, his ability to translate the most complex issues into clear, memorable language has made him one of the most popular economic writers and lecturers in the world. That he is black, yet a consistent champion of laissez-faire capitalism, also sets him apart as an independent and principled thinker.
Since 1980, Dr. Williams has served as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, where from 1995 to 2001 he was department chairman. He also taught at Los Angeles City College, California State University (Los Angeles), Temple University, and Grove City College.
He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in economics from UCLA. He also holds Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from Virginia Union University and Grove City College, a Doctor of Laws from Washington and Jefferson College, and a Doctor Honoris Causa en Ciencias Sociales from Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala, where he is also Professor Honorario.
A prolific writer, Dr. Williams has published over 150 articles in scholarly journals as well as popular publications including Newsweek, National Review, and Reader’s Digest. He also has authored six books: America: A Minority Viewpoint; The State Against Blacks (later made into the PBS documentary “Good Intentions”); All It Takes Is Guts; South Africa’s War Against Capitalism; Do the Right Thing: The People’s Economist Speaks; and More Liberty Means Less Government.
As if all this weren’t enough, Walter Williams has appeared on scores of radio and television talk programs, is a popular guest host for “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” and pens a syndicated weekly column for approximately 140 newspapers and several Web sites.
Yet somehow, he still managed to make time to chat with writer Sara Pentz for this rare, revealing, and completely captivating TNI interview.
: I hear that you are writing another book.
Williams: I’m doing an autobiography. My long-time friend and colleague, Thomas Sowell, wrote an autobiography, A Personal Odyssey. He’s been after me to write one. He said that the reason it’s important is that we’ve both led fairly public lives, and since there are so many historical revisionists around, it might be a good idea to have our story out. Tom encouraged me, since we’re both getting older. I’ll be 70 at the end of this month.
TNI: No kidding!
Williams: One of the examples of historical revisionism: Back during the early Reagan years, Tom and I were very visible, and there was a lot of controversy over him. Patricia Harris, who was the Secretary of HEW during the Carter Administration, responded to a series Tom wrote in the Washington Post called “Blacker Than Thou.” She said that Tom Sowell and I don’t know what poverty is because we were born with silver spoons in our mouths.
Nothing could be further from the truth. But the point that Tom was making was that we might as well put our lives out, in our own words, as opposed to just allowing some historical revisionist say how we lived.
TNI: Can you tell us a little bit about your early life?
Williams: Well, I was born in 1936 in Philadelphia. My father deserted my mother when, I guess, I was two or three years old. My sister is one year younger than I am. My mother struggled and raised us by herself, and this was during and right after the Depression years. She had to make a lot of sacrifices.
TNI: It must have been very difficult. You knew you didn’t have a father. What was your view of all of this?
Williams: I don’t think I thought about it.
TNI: Until you were what age?
Williams: I’m guessing that it might have been, oh, pre-adolescence or adolescence when I thought about it, but it never really bothered me.
TNI: Who or what most influenced you at an early age?
“We were poor, but we didn’t think of ourselves that way.”
: Well, I would say my mother. We were poor, but we didn’t think of ourselves that way. We had meals and reasonable clothing, and once in a while she’d take us out. But she was a person who said, “Well, there’s racial discrimination, so that means you just have to try harder.” One of her statements was that “we have a beer pocketbook, but we have champagne tastes.” And my grandmother—I was her favorite among, I guess, maybe about six or seven grandchildren—and she used to say things like, “Well, you don’t have to be rich to be clean.” Those kinds of values and admonishments were very, very influential.
: Was your mother an intellectual influence on your life, or just a loving mother?
Williams: A loving mother, but a mother and father at the same time. She was a real sergeant. She made many demands. She just demanded excellence and responsibility, and she pushed us to do well in school. I think that by the time my sister and I were six or seven we had our own library cards, and our Saturday outing was to go to the Philadelphia Library, walk there, I guess about sixteen blocks from our house to the library. And we would check out books and, if I recall correctly, four or five books was the limit. When I finished reading mine, I’d start reading my sister’s and vice versa. Matter of fact, one of the ways my mother punished us was to tell us to go up to our room, but without our books.
TNI: And that was really bad?
Williams: Yes, it was very bad. Sometimes my mother would put us to bed, and we would bring our books near the door to read them. The light was out in the room, but we read them by the light that came in underneath the door of the hallway.
TNI: It makes such an impact on the early life, doesn’t it, reading?
Williams: Oh, yes, it does.
TNI: It’s quite obvious that you see the world differently than most people do.
Williams: Probably so, yeah.
TNI: And why do you think that is?
Williams: Well, I’ve always been a radical, and I think my mother was radical. Radical in the sense that I believe that I should be able to do anything that I wish to do, so long as I don’t violate the rights of other people, and people should not violate my rights. Just leave me alone. And that’s the way my mother was, as well.
"I got my education at a time when people weren’t, oh my God, worrying about somebody’s 'self-esteem.'”
In that regard, I’m in the minority. That is, most people around the world—unfortunately including the United States—have contempt for the principles of personal liberty and private property rights. I think they believe that one person should be forcibly used to serve the purposes of another, and they believe that they have a right through the government to impose their wills on others. So I’m out of step with most people in the world.
TNI: Well, a few of us agree with you. But it’s a unique perspective.
Williams: It’s unique today, but it has not always been. One of the major influences on my thinking was reading through Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. I must have read it 75 times in my entire life. Paine and other of our Founders had a libertarian view of the world. It’s unique today, but it was not as unique in yesteryear.
TNI: Was Paine’s book one that you picked up at the library as a young boy?
Williams: No. I probably started reading that when I was—I’m just guessing—I must have been a teenager. I think it was a high school assignment.
You have to keep in mind that it was a different era. That is, black Americans did not have the kind of opportunities as other people had in our country. We faced varying forms of discrimination, and maybe that made me very sympathetic to the ideas in Common Sense.
TNI: Did you experience a lot of racial discrimination as a young man in school situations?
Williams: No, I did not. Matter of fact, when I was born, we lived in west Philadelphia, which is a fairly middle class, low-middle class area. There was a school down the street that was predominantly black. But my mother thought that we’d get a better education if we went to Hamilton School, which is all white, and mostly Jewish. Being the only blacks in the school, we were treated very nicely.
TNI: Were you a very serious, thinking young man?
TNI: That surprises me. Were you out playing football?
Williams: No, I played basketball. But I guess I would describe myself, as I look back, as a jokester, somewhat irresponsible about things, and a troublemaker.
TNI: And you survived all of that.
Williams: I survived it, yeah. One way I feel very lucky is that I managed to get virtually all of my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people. The teachers I had were predominantly white—I had possibly two or three black teachers in my entire education—and if I said something stupid, the teachers did not hesitate to tell me that it was utter nonsense. They didn’t care about my feelings. They didn’t care about racial discrimination.
For example, in junior high school I had a black teacher, Mrs. Meekins. We used to hand in essays, and on two occasions my four-page essay was returned to me torn up into four pieces, with a note on top: “At least you could spell correctly. Rewrite it.”
And then in high school—I guess I must have been maybe a sophomore—I had an English teacher who was a Jewish fellow, Dr. Martin Luther Rosenberg. He was a very, very dedicated teacher—so dedicated that he used to conduct college tutorial classes in the morning for students who had some promise of being able to attend college. He used to require that we get there at 7:00, and he would drill us on English grammar.
“In 1959... the FBI was following my wife, and the Criminal Investigation Division was investigating me.”
Anyway, I had his regular class later on in the day, and I was fairly good in English. He used to write sentences on the blackboard and have students correct them. One day he had a student correct a sentence, and he was about to erase the board when I told him that there was another error. Dr. Rosenberg said, “Well, what is it?” And I said: “There’s lack of agreement between the subjective object of the verb, ‘to be.’” He congratulated me and said, “You’re very alert this morning.” I said in a barely audible voice to the kid next to me, “I’m paying taxes so the teachers can teach me, and I have to teach them
But Dr. Rosenberg heard me, and he just flew off the handle. He was aggravated with me anyway, because I used to do all kinds of things in class. He told me, “Williams, teaching you this material is like casting pearls before the swine.” He told me I was never going to be anything.
Well, I needed that dressing down. That was the first challenge I got in high school, and ultimately I graduated salutatorian. I kind of got my act together.
When I talk about getting most of my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people, what I mean is: Can you imagine a teacher today telling any kid that—much less a white teacher telling a black kid? He wouldn’t do it. But, I needed that kind of dressing down. It turned me around.
You see, I got my education at a time when people weren’t, oh my God, worrying about somebody’s “self-esteem.”
TNI: About whether they’ll be “hurt” or not.
Williams: Yeah, right. We live in the Philadelphia mainline suburbs, very plush suburbs, and the public schools are reasonably good. I have one daughter, and when she was attending elementary school, we used to have parent-teacher meetings. One time her math teacher told me that she wasn’t turning in her assignments on time. I said, “Well, how could we know? You should have flunked her. You should have given her an ‘F.’” And he told me, “Well, we want the kids to feel good about themselves.” I told him, “Well, I feel good about myself every time I solve a set of quadratic equations. I don’t think that just because you’re a human being, self-esteem should be conferred on you.”
Anyway, my wife had been trying to get me to enroll my daughter and bear the expense of an all-girls’ private school. After that meeting, I decided, yes, we will indeed send her to the Agnes Irwin School for Girls. At that school, they used to send out interim reports. If she messed up, we knew the next day; something was mailed to us. And if she did something very good, we would get notice about it, too.
TNI: Let’s back up for a moment. When did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Williams: All that I knew as a kid was that I wanted much more than I had. I wanted things like a Coupe deVille Cadillac, and to live in a fine house, and stuff like that. But in terms of a career, I don’t think that I had anything in mind as a teenager.
TNI: So when did you know—well, how do you describe yourself? As a teacher, writer, speaker, philosopher, political scientist, economist?
Williams: I guess as an economist. I love teaching, and a lot of people ask, Well, what do you do? I say I teach economics, and I try to sell my fellow Americans on the moral superiority of liberty. But the kinds of things that I say in my public life never enter in class. I don’t talk about the kind of things you would hear me say on [the] Rush Limbaugh [radio show] or in my syndicated columns. Those are not topics that I use in my class, because I think that to use one’s class for proselytizing students is academic dishonesty. But I love teaching, and I tell Mrs. Williams that on the day that I die, I want to have taught on that day.
TNI: So how did you get into economics?
Williams: Well, to go back…I met my wife in 1958, and we got married in 1960. I met her when I was driving a taxicab in Philadelphia.
TNI: Was she in the back seat?
Williams: No, it’s bit more complicated than that. Anyway, I was drafted in the Army in 1959, and I had a lot of problems in the Army. Court martial, which I won, of course, but the FBI was following my wife, and the Criminal Investigation Division was investigating me. Anyway, I was sent to Korea, and I had a lot of time to think. I told my wife that as soon as we save $700, we’re going to go to Los Angeles, because I want to go to college. I got out of the Army in 1961, and we were on the road to Los Angeles in December of ’61. I started Los Angeles City College in February of ’62, majoring in sociology.
“The profit motive forces the producer to try to find what people want, and to produce what they want.”
Then, over one summer—I believe I was a junior—I read W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction
, and that convinced me that I wanted to learn something about economics. So I took a course in economics—this was at Cal State L.A.
Matter of fact, I changed my major to economics. I took my first economics course, and I got a D. I had a whole lot of trouble with the professor. I was asking questions that he did not like, and he called me to his office and said that he thought that I should change my major to something easier. I think I would have gone back to sociology, but my wife said, “Why don’t you try another course?”
It turns out that the next three courses I took in economics, I got all A’s. So that’s how I got into economics. And I’m very, very happy that I made that choice.
: But really, I think of you as a philosopher—you’re involved with politics and social issues and so on. You’re a thinker
more than anything. Isn’t that how you would describe yourself?
Williams: No, actually I would describe myself as an economist. But as I tell students the first day of class—whether I’m teaching a Ph.D. theory course, or the intermediate theory course—I tell them that economics, more than anything else, is a way of thinking. It’s using deductive logic; and if you learn a good way of thinking, you can apply that to many, many areas of human behavior. You don’t have to be a philosopher to be able to use the deductive logic of economics to analyze various issues.
: You know that many of the readers of The New Individualist
are Objectivists. Are you familiar with Ayn Rand
: Yeah. I’ve actually read more of her shorter pieces or articles than her works. I guess as a college student I tried to read Atlas Shrugged
, and I just could not get through it. I think I might have read the first three or four chapters. I understand I should have stuck with it, but later on in life I got the book on tape. Driving between my home in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and Fairfax, Virginia, I got through all of it. I was sorry, after having gotten through it, that I did not have more stick-to-it-iveness when I was in college.
: Is there anything about Ayn Rand
’s philosophy that you would like to comment about?
Williams: Well, yes, just one thing. She talked about the virtue of selfishness. And I agree with her 100 percent—but it doesn’t make for a way to sell your ideas to the unwashed. Because nobody wants to appear selfish. So that’s the only comment. But all of her comments about the businessman and the worker, I’m 100 percent in support of. It’s just that sometimes when you’re trying to sell an idea, you have to sugarcoat it a little bit.
TNI: She never sugarcoated anything.
Williams: Yes. Sometimes I tell people, Well, you have to be a little bit more end-oriented. That is, if you want to promote an idea, what is the best means to get your idea promoted? The people who want to control our lives, they have a wonderful selling package.
TNI: Talk a little bit about that.
: The people who want to control our lives say, “We’re caring, we really care about the children.” I even hate the term “children” nowadays, because a whole lot of the justification for controlling our lives has to do with “the children.” These people say, Oh, we care about the elderly people, things like that. They’ve been just very, very good at marketing. If you are among the unwashed, and you have me or Ayn Rand
saying, “Well, we just care about ourselves, we don’t care about anybody else,” and then you have somebody else saying, “Oh, we care, we feel your pain!”—well, who’s going to win?
TNI: It’s obvious.
Williams: And so one of the things that I try to do when I’m talking to people is to make an argument for the morality of markets. Matter of fact, I have a column coming out called “Caring vs. Uncaring.” I say in the column, Look at the wonderful things that are done for humanity, or look at the areas where we are most satisfied, and what do you see? The areas that we have the greatest satisfaction or the fewest complaints are places like the supermarket or the clothing store, or in computers and cell phones. And what’s the motivation of the producers? It’s for profit. But look at the areas where we’re dissatisfied—it’s public education, it’s the city sanitation department, it’s the public transportation, it’s the motor vehicles department. Look at the stated motivation in these areas: it’s where there’s caring, but where there’s no profit motive.
“I try to sell my fellow Americans on the moral superiority of liberty and free markets.”
So I point out that if you’re really concerned about pleasing people, you have to talk about the profit motive, because the profit motive does two things. It forces the producer to try to find what people want, and to produce what they want. At the same time, it forces them to provide human wants in a way that economizes on the usage of scarce resources. So to sell our ideas to the unwashed, make the case for the moral superiority of free markets. I’m always trying to make that case.
TNI: I’d like to get back to that issue of how everyone is trying to control us. What do you mean by that?
Williams: Well, one example: I smoke. People make up things, like secondhand smoke from people like me is harming people. I tell people that harm is not the issue at all. It’s private property rights. If I own a restaurant and I wish for there to be smoking, I just may put a sign outside and say, “I admit smoking.” If Sara doesn’t like that, just don’t come in my restaurant. And vice versa: a restaurant owner who does not permit smoking should put a sign out saying, “No smoking,” and I can decide whether I want to enter the restaurant under that condition.
However, what people want in our society is to forcibly impose their wills on other people. And they fail to see it in reverse. For example, most people would agree that if you owned the restaurant, and you did not want smoking in the restaurant, then it would be tyranny if, through the political mechanism, I and a bunch of people were able to make a law forcing you to permit smoking in your restaurant. But on the other hand, they see no problem with a law that will force a restaurant owner willing to allow smoking to not allow smoking.
TNI: The same is true regarding SUVs and other things we buy, and the way we indulge ourselves, and so on, isn’t it?
Williams: Yeah. There’s this Center for Science in the Public Interest. They want the imposition of taxes on non-nutritious foods. They also want a tax on televisions and gasoline, because we lead too sedentary lives; and if we raise the cost of televisions and gasoline, well, maybe people will walk more. All kinds of examples of people wishing to use the coercive power of the government to control the lives of others. People want to be able to tell me that if I have an adolescent daughter who gets pregnant and wants to have an abortion, she can have it without my consent or my knowledge—which is irrelevant to the debate over abortion. It’s just the very fact that someone is usurping my authority as a parent.
There is probably no idea that has an older history in human existence than the idea that one group of people ought to be able to control what another group of people do. It’s an idea that accounts for the ugliest parts of human history. I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to control the lives of anybody else. But I guess I’m fairly rare in that respect.
TNI: About your branching out into talk radio: is that something that you would like to do continually?
Williams: Well—not to have my own show.
TNI: What a shame.
Williams: It was, I think, in 1992 that James Goldman, one of the call screeners at “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” called me up and asked if I would like to be interviewed. [Former congressman] Bob Dornan used to substitute for Rush, and he interviewed me. Later, Rush called me and said he loved it. He was getting ready to go out of town, and he asked if I could come in and substitute-host for him. I told him I’d never hosted a show before in my life. And he said, Oh, it’ll be easy—my people will take care of you, tell you what to do. And so I’ve been doing that, I think, 14 years.
TNI: Do you enjoy it?
Williams: Yes, I enjoy it. I call that my big classroom.
TNI: Is there anything that has been written about you that is untrue, and that you would like the opportunity to correct?
Williams: Well, there’s been a hell of a lot of things written about me because I swim upstream against the tide. So that just goes with the territory.
TNI: How do you deal with that?
Williams: Oh, I just ignore it. It doesn’t bother me. Actually, a lot of it started during the Reagan Administration, and also in, I believe, 1978 or ’79 when I wrote a study for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. It was called Youth and Minority Unemployment. In it I point out that the minimum wage law discriminates against the employment of low-skilled people. It has a particularly devastating effect on black teenagers, because teenagers in general are low-skilled, but black teenagers are even more low-skilled because of the shoddy education that they receive, and sometimes the lack of a constructive household environment. So it would discriminate against the employment of black teenagers the most.
“Government has been the enemy of the people.”
At that time, the minimum wage was seen by most people as akin to motherhood, apple pie, and God; so to have somebody criticize the minimum wage was just unthinkable. Unions, union representatives, were writing and saying awful things about me. Matter of fact, the people in Congress tried to suppress the study. It wasn’t released until Senators Orrin Hatch and Samuel I. Hayakawa pressed the Joint Economic Committee of Congress to publish it, because they were just sitting on it.
TNI: So nothing has changed?
Williams: I think a lot has changed. It’s not political suicide now to come out against the minimum wage. And you find challenges being made to the so-called “living wage” because that’s the same as the minimum wage. In the latest study I wrote, I point out that something like 90 percent of academic economists agree that the minimum wage discriminates against the employment of low-skilled people.
TNI: You must feel gratified about this.
Williams: Well, yes. Whenever you have your ideas confirmed by the people in your profession, or confirmed by the evidence, it’s reassuring.
TNI: What are your favorite subjects to write or talk about?
Williams: Oh, anything. I’m what my colleague, Nobel Laureate Jim Buchanan, refers to as an “economic imperialist.” What he meant is that economists just dip their noses into any subject and apply economics to it. As I tell my students, economics is a way of thinking, a deductive, logical way of thinking. So sometimes you might hear me talking about applications of the second law of thermodynamics to economics. Sometimes I’ll dabble in biology and economics. I’ve written a lot of stuff on taxation, economic regulation, racial and sexual discrimination, and a whole range of topics. Whatever interests me, I write about it.
TNI: Are the subjects tied to current events?
Williams: Not necessarily, but I would say yes, to a significant degree.
TNI: Is there any one particular issue that you are most passionate about other than economics? Well, yes, I know that covers everything…
Williams: If you were to go to my Web page and put in a search term, “government,” that would probably be what I write about most. I think it’s the most important thing to write about because, if you look down through history, the major oppressor of humankind has been government. The Founders recognized that government is the enemy of mankind, but, at the same time, they recognized that we do need some government. So one of their goals was to limit government, because they recognized that the potential for abuse was so great.
If you read through all the statements by the Founders and the framers of the Constitution, it’s very much anti-government. Matter of fact, if you read through the Constitution and the first ten Amendments, you would conclude that it was a very anti-government document. That is, the negative phrases used by the Founders against the Congress of the United States showed their deep distrust. The Bill of Rights says Congress shall not disparage, Congress shall not abridge, Congress shall not prohibit, Congress shall make no law, blah, blah, blah. It reflected a deep suspicion of government.
“The essence of government is coercion.”
And if you look through history, government has been the enemy of the people. As brutal as the wars were in the 20th Century, where tens of millions of people were slaughtered—World War II, the 60 million; then World War I, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War—the total loss of life through wars pales in comparison with the number of people murdered by their own governments. You can start out with the Soviet Union: well over 100 million people were killed. Or the slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks, and the millions of people slaughtered by Hitler through extermination camps and things like this.
TNI: Not to mention in Iraq by Saddam.
Williams: Or Pol Pot in Cambodia. The evidence of human history shows that government is one of the greatest sources of evil, and so it always makes for a good topic because the essence of government is coercion. The government doesn’t say: Williams, would you please do such and such, would you please refrain from doing such and such? No, no, they say: Well, if you don’t do what we say, we’re going to put you in jail, or ultimately kill you. And that’s the essence of government, including our government.
TNI: You don’t believe in the Constitution as a “living document.”
Williams: No. When I hear that phrase, “the Constitution is a living document,” or “it’s flexible,” my response is that the person is also saying that we have no Constitution, because the Constitution represents our rules of the game. And for rules of the game to mean anything, they must be fixed. I’ve asked, How many people would like to play me poker if the rules would be “living”—that is, if in some circumstances, my two pair could beat your three of a kind?
For the Constitution to mean anything, it has to be fixed. And matter of fact, the Founders, in their wisdom, recognized that times would change, and that you might have to amend the Constitution; so they provided us with Article 5 as the means to amend the Constitution. But amending the Constitution is very difficult because you need two-thirds in Congress and three-quarters of the states. So people who want to change the rules of the game, they just go to the Supreme Court and just get the Court to override the Constitution. Or they just ignore the Constitution. If you read Madison’s comments in Federalist Paper 45, he was trying to explain what the Constitution was all about. He said—and I’m virtually quoting—that the powers that we’ve given Congress are few and defined and restricted mostly to external affairs. Those left with the people and the states are indefinite and numerous. Now, if you would turn that almost upside down, you’d have what we have today: the power of the federal government and powers of Congress are indefinite and numerous.
TNI: Which leads to the subject of individual rights. Today, lots of people think of rights as any kind of entitlement that they wish.
Williams: Yes. In a recent column called “Bogus Rights,” I said that rights, as used by the framers of the Constitution, meant something that we all enjoy simultaneously. And I gave the example that my right to free speech or freedom of religion imposes no obligation on you whatsoever, and in no way diminishes your rights to free speech and religion. The only obligation that my right to free speech imposes upon you is that of non-interference—that you don’t interfere with me.
If you compare that with what people say today—that people have a right to a job, a right to decent housing, a right to medical care—well, those aren’t really rights in the sense that the framers were talking about, because your right to medical care imposes an obligation on others. That is, there’s no tooth fairy or Santa Claus that provides the resources for you to get medical treatment. In order for government to give you the right to medical treatment, it must take away my rights to my income. If the government says that you have a right to something that you did not earn, that simultaneously says that I don’t have a right to something that I did earn. You understand what I mean?
TNI: Yes, absolutely. I’m in total agreement with that.
Williams: It’s nonsense if you say, “Oh, well that’s the same thing as my right to free speech.” If you apply these bogus concepts of rights to, let’s say, the right of free speech or my right to freedom of travel, that would mean that in order for me to enjoy my right to free speech, it would impose an obligation on others to provide me with an auditorium and a microphone—or my right to freedom of travel would require others to provide me with airplane fare and hotel accommodations.
Of course, for the leftist people who are pushing these kind of things, and many people on the right as well, it sounds so caring to say that somebody has the right to medical care. And here comes Williams who says, No, you don’t have a right to medical care; you don’t have a right to anything that you can’t afford. Now, because I take that position, that may sound mean to people. But when one reaches into his own pockets to help his fellow man, that’s quite laudable.
However, when one reaches into somebody else’s pocket to help his fellow man, that’s despicable. It’s nothing more than theft.
TNI: It’s very simple when you think about it, isn’t it?
TNI: You’ve been a critic of what’s happening on college campuses.
Williams: In general, colleges, particularly the professors and the administration of colleges, have lost the kind of intellectual and academic honesty that characterized colleges of the past. I mean, the kinds of things that are tolerated on the college campuses today—it’s despicable. The shouting down of people that they disagree with. Or the recent running out of the President of Harvard, just because he speculated that the reason why women are not highly represented in the sciences may have something to do with genetics.
“For the Constitution to mean anything, it has to be fixed.”
Take that incident. In terms of the actual evidence that we have, it turns out that women are never as dumb as men, but, on the other hand, they’re never as smart as men. That is, at the very high end of the IQ range, there are relatively few women. At the very low end of the IQ range, where you find imbeciles and idiots, there are relatively few women. And that might explain why women aren’t in jail as much as men. But he was not being a sexist for saying that; he only said, maybe that’s one of the reasons. Yet he was just lambasted at Harvard University and elsewhere. He also said something else: that maybe another reason is because married women just don’t have as much freedom to devote 80 hours a week to research as males do, because they have some obligations. Many times, married women have obligations of household and kids. But anyway, just for making some reasonable speculations, he was run out—he resigned.
What this shows in the university community and the academy is a growing intolerance for intellectual diversity. They’re for all kinds of diversity, whether it’s sex or race or et cetera, but they’re not for intellectual diversity. Studies show that some departments on many college campuses are 90, 95, and up to 100 percent Democrats. That speaks to some of the biases that we see on college campuses. Out in California at UCLA, my alma mater, the Bruin Alumni Association is documenting some of the proselytizing of kids by professors there.
TNI: Regarding that, you must be upset about what’s happened in the Denver, Colorado school with the teacher who was comparing Bush to Hitler.
Williams: Oh yes, I wrote a column on it. Jeff Allen, the father of a student in the class, sent me an e-mail telling me what his son was experiencing in his geography class. And he was irate about it. He told me that his son recorded the teacher’s comments, and he asked, Did I want the copy of the recording? And I said yes. I got the recording, and I wrote the column about it, which led to the teacher being put on administrative leave.
TNI: Yes, but he’s been reinstated.
Williams: He’s been reinstated, yes. If you look at the press conference with the superintendent of schools, it was really a mealy-mouthed response. Matter of fact, he didn’t even respond to some of the reporter questions. Did the teacher, Jay Bennish, violate Cherry Creek School District policy? He just would not answer. He said that’s a personnel matter, and we can’t talk about it. Have you heard the tape?
TNI: I’ve heard parts of it, absolutely, yes.
Williams: It’s not like he was sitting down and talking. He was actually hectoring the students.
Williams: And he said capitalism is anti-humanity. I had all of his quotes in my column.
TNI: As a teacher, how do you respond to that teacher doing something like this?
Williams: I see the Denver school event as just really more of the same. It’s widely prevalent in primary and secondary schools, and really going crazy in many colleges. But it’s not an issue of free speech. It’s just plain academic dishonesty. This kind of stuff, the classrooms being used this way, may very well explain why when an international comparison is made between the proficiency of our high school youngsters and those elsewhere in developed countries, we come up 21st. There’ve been geography surveys that find that many of our high school youngsters can’t locate the United Kingdom on a world map. Maybe because they’re too busy learning how similar Bush and Hitler are.
“You don’t have a right to medical care.”
My colleague Tom Sowell wrote a book several years ago called Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas. He points out where third grade teachers are asking their students: How many of you felt like beating up your parents? And in high school health class: How many of you hate your parents? Or surveys asking students: How many times do you masturbate a week?
TNI: I’ve heard about that, and a lot of similar surveys.
Williams: This is very prevalent.
George Will wrote a column earlier this year about teacher education. They’re not necessarily worrying about academic proficiency of teachers, but about how the teachers feel about social justice and white privilege and things like that. I’m thoroughly convinced that one of the best things we could do for primary and secondary education is to get rid of schools of education on college campuses, because schools of education on almost any college campus represent the intellectual slums of the campus. If you look at the students who become education majors—and the statistics are available from the National Center for Education Statistics—the high school students who intend to become education majors have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. And when these people graduate with a B.A., and some of them want to go to law school and take the LSAT, or to medical school and take them MCAT, or to graduate school and take the GRE, they score the lowest of any other major.
And so we have people in education who have very, very limited thinking ability, which makes them easy prey for all kinds of schemes that don’t make sense.
TNI: You’ve written that in the marketplace, and I’m going to quote, “…efficiency criterion dictates that resources be allotted to those who can best use the resources, as opposed to those who best need it.” What did you mean by that?
Williams: Well, one way to look at it, let’s look at education. Now, in terms of resource usage, a lot of people say: We ought to spend a lot of educational resources on kids who are alien and hostile to the education process, and try to find ways to motivate them. And they’ll say: The kids who are smart and motivated and from good backgrounds don’t need the resources.
What they are really saying is: We’re going to allocate resources to people who best need them, as opposed to the people who can best use them. And the people who can best use them, in this particular example, are the students with the supportive households, and who are not alien to the education process.
It’s the same thing if you look at what’s going on in Africa and South America, where they’re engaging in what they call “land reform.” The government is giving land to peasants, and in Zimbabwe giving it to blacks that are very, very low income and dispossessed. Well, if you give the land to those people who have relatively little knowledge and experience of farming, and take it away from those who have a lot of knowledge and experience of farming, then you shouldn’t be surprised if the agricultural output goes to hell.
TNI: Let’s shift to another hot topic. What do you think lies at the root of the recent high-profile influence-peddling schemes going on in Washington?
Williams: The root issue here—and [Jack] Abramoff’s case is just the latest—is that Congress has such control over our lives that it pays for people to spend resources to try to get Congress to make certain laws, to have certain regulations, to rig the economic game in their favor. A lot of the influence peddling that you see is just defensive. That is, a company might find out that there’s some regulation Congress is debating that’s going to raise the cost to them, make their activities less profitable. So they’ll go to Congress and try to get the regulation rescinded or defeated.
Then there’s the “good cop, bad cop” business, whereby Congressman A will tell his constituents that Congressman B is getting ready to push for a law or regulation that’s going to hurt them; and if you give me money, I’ll fight Congressman B on the floor. And Congressman A and B, they might be in cahoots together to try to do this to raise money.
I once asked a friend and associate of mine, Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, if he could write a law that would help the country the most, what would that law be? And he said, “Very simple: You should have a law that Congress cannot do for one American what it does not do for all Americans.” He gave me the example that if Congress pays some people not to raise pigs or grow wheat, they ought to pay every American not to raise pigs or grow wheat.
“Schools of education on almost any college campus represent the intellectual slums of the campus.”
In other words, a lot of the scandals in Washington and state capitals are a result of the fact that congressmen and state legislators have the power to do for one American what they won’t do for all Americans. That is, Congress is in the business of granting favors to some Americans and not granting them to other Americans. So people find it in their interest to pay congressmen to get favors. If we could eliminate that, we would get rid of some of the scandals. Ask yourself a question: Name me a lobbyist who will give a congressman thousands of dollars to guarantee him freedom of speech.
That’s worthless, because everybody has freedom of speech. But he will pay a congressmen who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee to give him a tax write-off for such and such.
TNI: It’s discouraging, to say the least. A lot of us are in a state of despair because we don’t see how this sort of thing can be stopped. Do you see any signs for optimism?
Williams: Not much, because, see, I don’t blame politicians a whole lot. I blame them a little bit for not living up to their oath of office and being sellouts. But the major problem is with the American people, because politicians are doing precisely what the American people elect them to office to do. They elect them to use the power of their office to take what rightfully belongs to one American and give it to another American to whom it does not belong. Or they elect politicians to office to confer a privilege on them that will not be conferred on other Americans.
Look, suppose I were to run for the United States Senate from, let’s say, Texas. And I go back and forth across the state during my campaign and I tell the people: “I’ve read the United States Constitution, and I’m going to adhere to the spirit of the Constitution that the framers intended when they wrote it. That means that, if you elect me to the United States Senate, don’t expect for me to bring back aid to higher education, Meals on Wheels, highway construction funds and college loans, and food stamps, because all those things are not authorized by the Constitution.”
Now, the question is: Do you think I would get elected to the Senate from Texas?
TNI: That would make a good stage comedy.
Williams: And the reason people wouldn’t elect me is because I wouldn’t be doing what they want me to do. Now let’s say I’m running for the Senate in California. The people of California would be behaving absolutely correctly in terms of their own economic interest by not electing me. And the reason is because if I don’t bring back billions of dollars in the form of highway construction funds, bridges, et cetera, et cetera, that doesn’t mean that Californians will pay a lower federal income tax. All that means is that the tax money will go to Nevada instead.
The tragedy for our nation is that once legalized theft begins, it pays for everybody to get involved. And those who don’t get involved will wind up holding the brown end of the stick.
TNI: It’s obvious that you don’t consider yourself to be a liberal, but do you think of yourself as a conservative?
TNI: I didn’t think so. Is there a label for your views?
Williams: When people press me on that, I tell them I’m a radical—a radical like many of the framers of the Constitution were. I call myself a radical because most Americans have utter contempt for the principles of individual liberty, and any American who supports the principles of individual liberty is way out of step. He’s a radical.
As I said, the average American thinks that it’s okay for the government to give money to poor people or to foreigners or to bailouts for the airline industry. And I find all that offensive to the principles of liberty. So in that sense, I’m a radical. Now, if you pressed me—Is there a political party that holds the views that I hold?—I’d say the closest would be the Libertarian Party. But even the Libertarian Party and I part company, mostly in the areas of foreign policy. It seems to me that many Libertarians fail to realize or notice that we live in a hostile world.
Where many people in the Libertarian Party would not do any preemptive strikes against other nations, I surely would. That is, if I have a neighbor next door who hates my guts, and if I see him building a cannon in the window pointed at my house, I’m not going to wait for him to finish.
TNI: So in that sense, you would agree with what our government is doing in Iraq, Iran, various places?
Williams: Well, here’s a question. Foreign intelligence has always been less than perfect. That is, during World War II, one of the reasons we focused most of our energies on conquering Germany was because our intelligence said that Germany was getting close to having an atomic bomb. It turned out that the intelligence was wrong. In the case of Iraq, the intelligence appears to be wrong, although some people are now saying that the weapons of mass destruction were moved to Syria.
Whenever you engage in any kind of policy, you always have a chance of making a mistake. But when you’re looking at a situation like Iraq, I believe that there are essentially two errors that we could make, and you have to ask which is the least costly error. The first error is that we could assume that Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction when, in fact, he doesn’t. Or we could assume that he does not have weapons of mass destruction when, in fact, he does.
So you say: Well, which error is more costly? I say that the latter one is—to assume that he does not have nuclear weapons when, in fact, he does. Because if he does get nuclear weapons, given his designs in the Middle East, it could raise havoc and affect the entire world.
“Congress is in the business of granting favors to some Americans and not granting them to other Americans.”
In terms of preemption, if you look at Germany after World War I, there was the Versailles Treaty that placed limitations on what kind of military Germany could have. It turned out that when Hitler came to office in the early ’30s, he set about to break one treaty agreement after another. When he started breaking them, it turned out that in 1935 or 1936 France alone could have defeated Germany. But we just let him continue to build his military might until World War II, and about 50 to 60 million people died as a result. Now, if we had taken a preemptive strike against Nazi Germany, then we would have saved all those lives.
History is never totally repeated twice. But switching back to Iraq: Well, the whole West could have ignored Saddam Hussein, let him get all those weapons, and then find out later that we would have to go in there militarily. And the cost then could have been much greater than it was in the recent conflict. So the question that you always have to ask is: Will a preemptive strike lower long-run costs? And I believe it did.
TNI: About Iran—comments?
Williams: Of course, I don’t have access to all the intelligence that the White House has about the situation in Iran. But given what I know, I think I would just tell the leaders there: Stop trying to get nuclear weapons, or we’re going to lay some submarines off the coast and send missiles to bomb your facilities. Matter of fact, I wouldn’t send a single troop in there whatsoever. I would just send cruise missiles. Every time they started building, I’d try to get the intelligence to find the sites, and just bomb the hell out of them.
And matter of fact, if I were in the shoes of President Truman back in the late ’40s when we had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, I think I would have decreed to the world that any nation that started making nuclear weapons, we’re going to bomb the facilities. Now, of course that violates national sovereignty. But the alternative is many nations having nuclear weapons. That is, to avoid Armageddon, there now has to be a unanimous decision by all holders of nuclear weapons not to use them. And as the number of holders of nuclear weapons increases, the more difficult it is to come up with a unanimous vote not to use them, because different countries will engage in strategic behavior. A country like Iran or North Korea may miscalculate, or may feel that they really have not as much to lose.
The point is that we have to keep the nuclear club size small, and so that’s what I would have done as President—just issue a decree that we’re going to bomb the facilities of any nation making nuclear weapons, including our allies. I would have told Great Britain the same thing.
TNI: So you’re just saying absolutely nobody gets nuclear weapons.
Williams: That’s right, yeah. It’s just the power to impose our will in that regard on the rest of the world. Now, I would not impose my will in any other area—just in terms of nuclear weapons.
TNI: I was in the mainstream media for quite a while. It was very difficult for me because I was not a liberal. You are a sharp critic of the media. What is your biggest complaint?
Williams: Well, actually, I don’t complain about them too much any more, because a lot of their monopoly power has dissipated with talk radio and other sources for Americans to get news. But I in addition to bias, they tend to be very, very poorly informed about many of the issues that they discuss.
You hear in the news that the minimum wage is going to be increased to such and such an hour, so low-income people are going to get a raise. Reporters just assume that when you raise the wage from $5 to $7 an hour, all that means is that people have $2 more an hour. But what they don’t appreciate is that some people are going to get laid off. Some jobs are going to go overseas, and there’s going to be automation.
I was talking to a group of news people to try and explain economics to them. I was saying that when I was a kid back in the ’40s and ’50s, even in neighborhood theatres you might find two or three ushers working, young people working to take you to your seat. You don’t find ushers today in neighborhood theatres, and fewer in downtown ones, and the reason is not because Americans of today like to stumble down the aisles in the dark to find their seats.
“The tragedy for our nation is that once legalized theft begins, it pays for everybody to get involved.”
Or when I was a youngster, you pulled into the gasoline station and someone would fill your tank, wash your windows, check your oil and the air in your tires. Young people were doing that. But you don’t find that anymore. You find self-service stations. You don’t have self-service stations because Americans today like to spill gasoline on their shoes and sniff fumes when they gas their cars. It’s just that the minimum wage has destroyed that kind of job. If the stations had to pay the minimum wage, and still provide all the service that they used to provide in the past, they’d have to charge $5 a gallon.
So in addition to being biased, the media are just uninformed about many of the issues that they report. More recently you hear commentators saying, Oh, the trade deficit is a horrendous problem. Well, in any kind of meaningful economic sense, there’s no trade deficit. International trade is always balanced. If they don’t know that, then of course they’re going to say it’s a deficit. They’ll say we buy more from Japan than Japan buys from us. Well, so what? I buy more from my grocer than he buys from me. And he buys more from the wholesaler than the wholesaler buys from him. The problem is they’re only looking at what we call the goods account and ignoring the capital account.
TNI: Can you name any specific reforms that might help turn things around?
Williams: There’s only one, and it has a relatively low probability of actually succeeding. But if it did succeed, I think it would be a start. There’s a group of young people who call themselves Free State Project, and they have a Web site called freestateproject.org. They’re trying to get about 20,000 Americans, liberty-oriented Americans, to move to one state. They’re already decided on the state of New Hampshire. They want to peaceably take over the legislature and the executive, through the democratic process; and they want to also peaceably elect senators and congressmen; and having done that, they want to negotiate with Congress to obey the United States Constitution.
Not many of the members have gone as far as I’m suggesting, but I would say they should negotiate with Congress to obey the Constitution; and if Congress fails to obey the Constitution, then issue a unilateral Declaration of Independence.
People have said to me, Well, we’ve already been through secession once, and it didn’t work. And I tell them, No, we haven’t been through secession just once. It’s been twice. First, we seceded from King George and Britain, and that was successful. The second one, when the Confederate states thought to secede, was unsuccessful. So we’re batting .500, and I’d like to break the tie.
TNI: Finally, if you could recommend one book for Americans to read, what would it be?
Williams: It would probably be Frederick Bastiat’s The Law. He lays down a philosophy that explains what government is. He’s been very, very influential in the way that I look at some things. He asks, How can you determine whether there’s been legalized plunder? And he says: See if government does something that, if a person did the same thing privately, he would go to jail.
"I’m a radical—a radical like many of the framers of the Constitution were.”
For example, I could see an elderly lady sleeping out on a grate in the dead of winter, and I could come up to you with a gun in my hand, and say, “Sir, give me your $200.” Then, having gotten your $200, I’d go down and buy the lady some food and housing and medical attention. Well, most people would say I would be guilty of theft, regardless of what I did with the money.
So I ask them: Is there any conceptual distinction between that act, and when the government—when the agents of Congress, the IRS—comes up to me and says: “Williams, you know that $200 you made last week that you planned to buy some nice wine with? You will not do that. You’ll give it to us, and we will go downtown and help the lady out.”
Bastiat would say there’s no conceptual distinction between those two acts—that the first act is illegal theft where you go to jail, and the second act is legalized theft. Both acts involve taking the rightful property of one person and giving it to another, to whom it does not belong. Bastiat doesn’t actually explain it the way I do, but the gist of what he’s saying in his book is identical.
TNI: I understand now why you’re such a good teacher. I wish I could come to your classes. Thank you for spending time with TNI.
Williams: Well, thank you.