Our colleague, the great Walter Williams, died on Tuesday shortly after teaching his last class–which is exactly how he would have wanted to go. He was 84 and had been teaching at George Mason since 1980. As Don Boudreaux writes in the WSJ:
For 40 years Walter was the heart and soul of George Mason’s unique Department of Economics. Our department unapologetically resists the trend of teaching economics as if it’s a guide for social engineers. This resistance reflects Walter’s commitment to liberal individualism and his belief that ordinary men and women deserve, as his friend Thomas Sowell puts it, “elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’ ”
Walter taught UCLA-Chicago price theory to multiple generations of George Mason students. His students loved him. He secured funding for me when I was a student, for which I have always been grateful. You can find many of his graduate exam questions here. They are tough!
Walter led a remarkable life recounted in his autobiography, Up From the Projects. He was arrested for disorderly conduct several times and drafted into the army. He was later court-martialed but, acting as his own attorney, he wins his case. He’s sent to Korea and when asked to fill in a form stating his race he writes Caucasian because the Negros got all the worst jobs. He tells his commanding officer that he has pledged to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and that he, the commanding officer, is a domestic enemy of the constitution. He writes to complain to President John F. Kennedy. The army gives him an honorable discharge. His wife, Connie, helps him to become more mannerly. It was only when he discovered economics, however, that he learned to combine trouble-making with discipline. He was interviewed a few years ago on these themes by Jason Riley for the WSJ:
“I was more than anything a radical,” says Mr. Williams. “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.”
During his junior year at California State College in Los Angeles, Mr. Williams switched his major from sociology to economics after reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America,” a Marxist take on the South’s transformation after the Civil War that will never be confused with “The Wealth of Nations.” Even so, the book taught him that “black people cannot make great progress until they understand the economic system, until they know something about economics.”
He earned his doctorate in 1972 from UCLA, which had one of the top economics departments in the country, and he says he “probably became a libertarian through exposure to tough-mined professors” — James Buchanan, Armen Alchian, Milton Friedman — “who encouraged me to think with my brain instead of my heart. I learned that you have to evaluate the effects of public policy as opposed to intentions.”
Walter was never politically correct. He once demanded that our Dean do something about the lack of representation of Asian-Americans on the GMU basketball team. He enjoyed his iconoclasm but his provocations were designed to get people to stop and think not to offend. It’s not clear that this is possible anymore.
Walter was a brilliant communicator. GMU Econ Chair Daniel Houser noted:
That Walter is so beloved by legions of non-economists speaks not to his dumbing down of economics in order to attain popularity. Instead, it speaks to his unusual mastery of economics to make it accessible and relevant to ordinary men and women.”
Walter was always his own person, perhaps best reflected in this interview with Nick Gillespie.
Gillespie: Let’s talk a little bit about the broad-based libertarian movement. Do you feel that you are part of a libertarian movement?
Williams: No, I don’t.
Gillespie: So, what are you then?
Williams: I am not a part of a movement. I have never been part of a movement, I just do my own thing.
I miss him already. There is no replacement. Here is Suffer No Fools, an excellent video-biography of the great Walter Williams.