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"The E Stands for Excellence": A Tribute to Walter E. Williams

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Walter E. Williams, prolific author, piercing cultural commentator, old-school economist (that’s a good thing), devoted husband, loving father, and longtime friend of Grove City College, has passed from this world.

To the rest of America, Williams was known as a “suffer-no-fools” commentator on perennial, hot-button public policy issues, particularly those pertaining to race and discrimination. To the Grove City College family, he was known as a long-serving member of the board of trustees, an adjunct professor in the Grove City College Department of Economics during the 1990s, a graduation commencement speaker (twice), and a recipient of a GCC honorary doctorate. While a student in George Mason University’s doctoral program in economics, I knew him as “Dr. Williams.” And if I was going to make a favorable impression during my first semester microeconomics course, I’d better internalize the wisdom of “UCLA-style price theory”—of which Williams was the greatest living communicator. More on that in a minute.

He was born in 1936 in a poor part of Philadelphia—a city he was fond of describing as having a “property rights problem.” Those of us who were his students caught his drift. But he hadn’t always thought of things with such piercing analytical clarity. In his youth, Williams described himself as a “radical,” someone “sympathetic to Malcolm X,” and a proponent of minimum wage laws because he believed they “helped poor people and poor black people and protected workers from exploitation.”

Though later repudiating many of his self-proclaimed “radical” views (and arguably adopting others that were just as “radical” along different lines), Williams had identified and experienced true racial injustice while serving as a private in the army. During his military stint, Williams’s passion for justice—particularly racial justice—caused him to write to President John F. Kennedy, decrying the pervasive racial discrimination he observed and experienced in the army’s ranks.

His campaign for justice didn’t stop with letter writing, though, and it eventually got him in big trouble. As relayed in this documentary, one day Williams’s commanding officer, a man with manifestly prejudiced views, barked out: “Williams! Paint that truck!” Young Walter knew he’d been assigned the grunt work—once again—merely because of his officer’s racist proclivities. “Yessir!” he replied. “The whole truck?” he asked for clarification. The commanding officer was hot: “Of course the whole truck, Williams! Now get it done!” Walter E. Williams proceeded to paint every square inch of the truck’s exterior—windows, tires, the whole kit and kaboodle. For his fidelity to the officer’s command, Williams was awarded a court martial proceeding, but was eventually exonerated.

After leaving the army, Williams resumed his education at California State College at Los Angeles, where he graduated with an economics degree in 1965. But it was his matriculation in the economics PhD program at UCLA that made him the Walter Williams we know and love today. At UCLA, he was dazzled with the brilliance of his professors Armen Alchian and future Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan. Gradually—and only gradually because Williams was stubborn—Alchian, Buchanan, and other faculty (like Axel Leijonhufvud) convinced Willliams, with hard-nosed economic theory, that minimum wage and discrimination laws only add to the hurts of disenfranchised communities. While stubborn, he was always too much a truth seeker to demur for long. Walter E. Williams the economist was born.

Thankfully for us, Williams didn’t nurse the grievances he’d endured at the hands of racist army officers; instead, they were a source of curiosity to him. He became a fervent disciple of Armen Alchian’s distinct “UCLA” approach to microeconomic theory. The UCLA approach pursues “opportunity cost” reasoning unflinchingly, all while emphasizing that opportunity costs vary with the property rights arrangement. For Williams, this meant asking questions like: “Why could I experience such vicious discrimination in the military, all while African Americans have begun to dominate the NBA?” Williams found the answer at UCLA: the opportunity cost of acting like a bigot is lower for the military man than the owner of a professional sports franchise. The latter will see his income fall if he indulges his bigoted tastes by passing over the best ball players merely to avoid association with African Americans. The military man’s income is secure regardless of his prejudicial behavior. One man can discriminate with virtual impunity; the other must forgo profits to exercise his bigotry.

Williams taught me and my classmates that “discrimination” is merely a synonym for “choice.” Each of us discriminates when we choose a college, a spouse, a church, and so on. So, the question arises: What are the conditions that allow space for racially discriminatory actions to breathe? In books such as his classics The State against BlacksSouth Africa’s War against Capitalismand Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? Williams incisively demonstrated the role that public policies play in lowering the costs of racially discriminatory behavior. Reading Williams’s airtight logic, grounded in his UCLA price theory days, is a devastating blow to all who reason that union activity, minimum wages, or antidiscrimination laws are a boon to the disenfranchised.

Though an academic economist, Williams was that rare talent who could compellingly communicate with lay audiences. It’s for that reason that most of America knew him as a substitute host for popular talk radio programs like Rush Limbaugh’s. Or they knew him from the thousands of columns that he wrote on a syndicated basis for decades.

What most people don’t know is that Williams’s impressive ability to speak on wide-ranging issues with unusual clarity derived from his steadfast commitment to the “economic way of thinking”—evidence for which can be found on his personal website. There, you can test your own economic knowledge on any of the 111 questions that he believed any self-respecting, PhD-holding economist should be able to answer. At the same time, he assured my classmates and I that “99 percent of the economists in Washington, DC,” would perform dismally on his 111-question test. If you are anything like me, revisiting the list will give you an urge to brush up on your price theory—an outcome that I’m sure would make Dr. Williams smile.

But if you’re not an economist, Walter E. Williams is still your man. His writing is for you. Pick it up today and understand the world better than you did before. Let Walter E. Williams be your guide to the contentious issues of race and discrimination that have come to the fore in our day. You won’t be disappointed. After all, he used to tell us, “the E stands for excellence.”


Caleb Fuller

Dr. Caleb Fuller is assistant professor of economics at Grove City College. He has published papers in Public Choice, the International Review of Law and Economics, the European Journal of Law and Economics, the Review of Austrian Economics, and others.

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