I was deeply saddened and depressed to learn that my old friend Professor Walter E. Williams passed away yesterday morning at the age of 84. For the past forty years Walter was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University; one of the greatest libertarian columnists in the world; a fabulously inspiring teacher; one of the best public speakers you would ever encounter on the subjects of economics and libertarianism; and the most popular guest host of the Rush Limbaugh radio show.
Walter was already at George Mason University when I arrived there as a young assistant professor of economics in 1981, preceding me by a year. He and I were the two faculty members who taught the large 300+ student sections of principles of economics. I quickly realized that it would be many years before I could approach Walter’s masterful classroom performances. (And you do need to be a bit of a performer before such a large audience that can easily be bored to death with such a large crowd and so many distractions).
Walter never pulled his punches, in the classroom or anywhere else. When he got to the section of the course on labor economics and the economics of discrimination, he shocked his audiences of mostly freshman econ 101 students by reminding them that “discrimination” is not always a bad or negative thing. For example, he would say, when he was looking for a wife he discriminated against fat women, ugly women, and white women. That was long before America’s youth were conditioned since kindergarten to swoon over such language, instigate riots, or set fire to campus buildings.
In the early ‘80s the George Mason administration announced that every academic department was to have an “affirmative action officer.” Naturally, we chose Walter. His job was to report to the administration once a year on how good a job the department had done in recruiting women and minority faculty. In his first year with that assignment Walter informed the administration that (paraphrasing) “We tried to hire a tall, statuesque blond from UCLA [true story] but the administration was too cheap to give us enough salary money to compete for her services.” Boy, did the sanctimonious campus Leftists hate Walter for such talk – a huge badge of honor on his chest.
Back in those days Walter’s office was adorned with a framed picture of his daughter, who he doted over, and a Confederate flag! When a visitor asked why a black man like himself had a Confederate flag in his office, he said it was to give him the opportunity to explain the virtues of secession to whoever asked about it. That was some fifteen years before I wrote anything about Lincoln, secession, or the War to Prevent Southern Independence. It was also one reason why I asked Walter to write the foreword to The Real Lincoln, which he did, with a most eloquent essay. (To this day, of all the hundreds of critiques of The Real Lincoln, I am unaware that any critic has mentioned Walter’s great foreword).
Shortly after the publication of The Real Lincoln I got a call from Walter at 7 A.M. one morning. He said that Rush Limbaugh was ill, that he was guest hosting the show, and asked if I would be interested in being on the show for an interview about the book. I spent an entire hour talking to Rush Limbaugh’s audience about the book and taking questions from callers with Walter. By that evening my Amazon.com sales ranking was #2. I sent Walter a hundred dollar bottle of wine as a thank you gift.
Walter was not only a fabulous classroom teacher, public speaker, and columnist; he produced a lot of great scholarship as well. He was a product of the old UCLA School of Economics, a sort of offshoot of the old Milton Friedman/George Stigler/Gary Becker Chicago School at that time. ( It is a sin that Walter’s UCLA mentor, Armen Alchian, was never awarded the Nobel prize in economics). Armed with a great UCLA economic education (after being drafted and then kicked out of the U.S. Army — not dishonorably discharged –for being too much of a smartass and independent thinker, another badge of honor!) Walter authored many important journal articles on labor economics and other topics as well as such books as The State Against Blacks; South Africa’s War Against Capitalism [aka Apartheid]; More Liberty Means Less Government; Race and Economics; Liberty versus the Tyranny of Socialism; and American Contempt for Liberty. His autobiography is entitled Up from the Projects.
Walter’s two favorite hobbies were cigarette smoking and long-distance biking, one of which probably shortened his life. He also liked to boast about his alleged basketball prowess. He never left his beloved family home in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, commuting to Fairfax, Virginia all those years (down on Monday morning, back on Thursday). He would battle suburban Philadelphia traffic at daybreak on his bike rides, even in the colder Pennsylvania weather.
The last time I saw Walter was when I sponsored a lecture by him at Loyola University Maryland on “The Legitimate Role of Government in a Free Society.” It was vintage Walter Williams, a combination of deep learning about the American founding, political philosophy and economics, and the philosophy of freedom, all explained in a way that anyone could understand and appreciate. Students were stopping me on campus days later to thank me for bringing him to campus. Most of them told me that, after 13-15 years of “education,” his lecture was the first time they had ever encountered the philosophical arguments for limited constitutional government. Like most American college students today, they had been taught since pre-school that the more unlimited is government, the better.
After picking Walter up at his hotel and driving to the campus I pointed out buildings housing Maryland death row. In typical Walter Williams fashion, he gazed out the window at the buildings and said, “they’re not big enough.”
One of the things that got me interested in economics in the first place as a college freshman was that in my first economics class the professor used a standard textbook and a reader entitled An Economist’s Protest by Milton Friedman. It was a collection of Friedman’s Newsweek magazine articles. Back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s Friedman and Paul Samuelson authored popular economic articles in the magazine on alternative weeks. I’d like to think that Walter’s thousands of syndicated columns have had a similar effect on many young people, a giant “multiplier effect” for the cause of a free society. In that sense Walter was the Frederic Bastiat of our day. Rest in peace my friend.