Daniel Sutter: Walter Williams comes to Troy

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One of America’s best known economists, Dr. Walter Williams of George Mason University, will visit Troy next week. Dr. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent guest on Fox News, and a past guest host for Rush Limbaugh.

Dr. Williams grew up in Philadelphia and earned his Ph.D. in economics from UCLA. Although less known as a center of free market economics than George Mason today or Chicago in decades past, UCLA was home to some great free market economists, including Arnold Harberger, Jack Hirshleifer, Armen Alchian, and Harold Demsetz. Dr. Williams learned economics from some superstars.

In addition to his syndicated column, Dr. Williams has authored ten books and dozens of academic papers. One of his early contributions was a study on minority unemployment for Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. The Democrats controlled Congress in the 1970s, and so I can imagine the report on minority unemployment they expected an African American economist to produce. They refused to publish Dr. Williams’ report as written, and the original, unedited study became legendary.

In the 1980s Dr. Williams wrote two important books on race and discrimination, The State Against Blacks and South Africa’s War Against Capitalism. Some people think that government will address discrimination simply because this is the right thing to do. But history shows otherwise. Consider the minimum wage, hailed today as benefitting the poor and minorities despite its actual harm. Early proponents viewed a minimum wage as a means to discriminate against African Americans. Occupational licensing excluded minorities from many professions for years.

We can all hopefully agree that prejudice and racism is wrong, but Dr. Williams’ book illuminated for me the complexity in limiting the harm from prejudice. Government will not automatically do the right thing. Prejudice can lead to government discrimination against minorities, which can inflict worse harm than individuals’ discrimination.

South Africa’s Apartheid regime of race-based segregation symbolized racism in the 1980s. Many college students were lobbying American companies to stop doing business in South Africa, or lobbying universities to stop investing in companies doing business there. Campus liberals always blamed Apartheid on capitalism. South Africa’s War Against Capitalism was another eye-opener for me, explaining how Apartheid emerged in part to compel businesses to discriminate against black South Africans. Markets, by contrast, typically advance color-blindness. Competition, for instance, leads consumers to focus on who provides the best product at the best price, not the producer’s race. Entrepreneurs have freedom to not discriminate if they choose. Widespread prejudice can result in government policies forcibly compelling all to discriminate. The freedom of the market is sometimes crucial to preserve any opportunities for minorities to work and trade.

Dr. Williams has been an ardent and consistent defender of personal freedom, the market economy, and limited government. He has done so with a style all his own, which includes his blunt lambasting of the foolish notions of liberal politicians and liberal professors. He maintains his popular following even though he frequently quotes intellectuals like H. L. Mencken, Frederic Bastiat, Jonathan Swift, and America’s founding fathers.

In addition to these achievements as an economist, Dr. Williams also played an integral role in building the economics program at George Mason University. Dr. Williams arrived in the 1970s and was part of the core faculty group (along with the Johnson Center’s Manuel Johnson) who lured the Center for the Study of Market Processes and the Center for the Study of Public Choice to GMU. Dr. Williams oversaw a major expansion during his term as department chair in the 1990s.

The Johnson Center is very proud to bring such an illustrious and entertaining intellectual to Troy. Dr. Williams will be speaking at 10am Wednesday, April 20 at the Claudia Crosby Theater on the Troy University campus. His talk is free and open to the public.

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Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.

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