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The World Loses an Iconic Thinker

December 7, 2020

On the morning of December 2, 2020, the world lost an icon with the passing of Dr. Walter E. Williams at age 84. Dr. Williams, born in Philadelphia in 1936, was fond of mentioning in speeches that his younger cousin growing up was none other than Julius “Dr. J” Erving, the legendary hall of fame basketball player. Though Williams reveled in the boast that he schooled Erving on the court, he always smiled and mentioned he was more than a decade older than the young superstar-to-be.

Walter became a versatile writer, thinker, and speaker, in the fields of economics, education, and race relations. Williams often guest-hosted the Rush Limbaugh show and served as a guest on radio and television shows across the country.

Dr. Williams advised numerous American presidents and world leaders. His teaching and research career spanned more than 50 years at numerous places, including Grove City College (PA), California State University at Los Angeles, Los Angeles City College, Temple University (PA), The Hoover Institution (CA) and for the last 40 years at George Mason University where he was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics.

Dr. Williams earned his BA in Economics from California State University at Los Angeles in 1965, his Master of Economics from UCLA in 1967 and his PhD from UCLA in 1972. During his early college days, Williams was far from an advocate of free market economics. In fact, in 2011 he told Jason Riley at The Wall Street Journal that during his undergraduate studies “I was more than anything a radical. I was more sympathetic to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King because Malcolm X was more of a radical who was willing to confront discrimination in ways that I thought it should be confronted, including perhaps the use of violence. But I really just wanted to be left alone. I thought some laws, like minimum wage laws, helped poor people and poor black people and protected workers from exploitation. I thought they were a good thing until I was pressed by professors to look at the evidence.” It was at UCLA that legendary economists like Armen Alchian and James M. Buchanan challenged Williams’s assumptions and thereby inspired his later advocacy for freedom and free enterprise. Williams was also inspired by other free-market luminaries including Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Henry Hazlitt. He was also friends with fellow Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell. After years of scholarly debate and research, Williams would conclude “if one person has a right to something he did not earn, of necessity it requires that another person not have a right to something that he did earn.” From the above realization for the rest of his life, Williams was convinced that the most moral, ethical, and efficient economy was one where government intervention was kept to a minimum.

Williams had the rare ability to write and publish the highest of scholarship while still communicating his ideas effectively to popular audiences. Williams’s writing appeared in prestigious academic journals ranging from The American Economic Review, Policy Review and The Journal of Labor Economics to articles published in popular press outlets – ranging from The American Spectator and Newsweek to Reason Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Williams authored 11 books, among his most popular were The State Against Blacks (1982) and American Contempt for Liberty (2015).

I had the honor of knowing Walter Williams for more than 30 years. He had a great sense of humor, and a kind heart. Anyone who had an interaction with Walter left wiser for the exchange. We first met in Houston, Texas where we were speakers on a program designed to teach economics to Texas high school teachers sponsored by Houston’s Free Enterprise Institute and Abilene Christian University. Later, Walter would come to Northwood University in Midland, Michigan to be part of a 4-day seminar on economics sponsored by American Express Financial Planners. A few years later, I drove a group of Northwood students to Detroit to listen to Dr. Williams address a luncheon crowd of more than 1,000 people sponsored by The Detroit Economic Club. Even though that was more than 20 years ago, I still remember vividly the appreciation my students had being able to hear Dr. Williams presentation. My fondest memory of Walter was when he agreed to allow us to include one of his essays in our university’s cornerstone textbook, When We Are Free.

Williams was a classical liberal, in today’s terminology, a libertarian. He was a staunch advocate for freedom, especially economic freedom. He opposed most systems of government intervention and believed that laissez-faire capitalism was the well-spring of human progress and allowed the most moral, ethical, and productive system humans ever designed. The world is a little freer and millions around the world are better off today because of the scholarship of Dr. Walter E. Williams.

About the Author: Dr. Timothy G. Nash is director of the McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at Northwood University. Nash would like to thank his colleagues Dr. Glenn Moots and Dr. Alex Tokarev for their input in writing this article.

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