Walter Williams, the free market economist and iconoclast, died last week at the age of 84. He was so libertarian that he refused to accept the term as a descriptor. In a 2011 interview with Reason, Williams was asked whether he saw himself as part of the libertarian movement to which he had contributed so much. No, he said: “I just do my own thing.”
The author of 13 books, Williams was best probably best known for 1982’s The State Against Blacks, which documented how government interference in the free market has been especially harmful to black Americans. His 1989 book, South Africa’s War Against Capitalism, advanced a similar argument.
Born in 1936, Williams grew up in the Richard Allen Homes, one of Philadelphia’s first housing projects. When he was a small child, his father deserted his family. He was brought up by his mother, a high school dropout, and the family spent time on welfare. Williams would later draw a distinction between material poverty and what he called “poverty of the spirit.”
He worked as a taxi driver in the City of Brotherly Love, and he was once ordered out of his cab by a white police officer, beaten up, and then charged with disorderly conduct. He was drafted into the Army, and while stationed in Georgia kept getting in trouble—occasionally with his fists—for standing up to the racism of white officers. He came to believe that discrimination should be legal, just as long as it didn’t involve government resources.
After the Army, Williams studied economics at California State College, and then went to UCLA for graduate school, where he was exposed to titans of free market economics, including Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, and UCLA’s department chair, Armen Alchian. “Flunking economic theory the first time around, I later realized, did have a benefit,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir Up From the Projects. “It convinced me that UCLA professors didn’t care anything about my race: They’d flunk me just as they’d flunk anyone else who didn’t make the grade.”
In 1977, Williams started writing a weekly column, which was eventually syndicated in 140 newspapers. He was also a contributor to Reason magazine and served as an emeritus trustee on the board of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason TV.
For all his individual accomplishments, Williams was especially proud of his role in making George Mason University’s economics department a home for free market radicals. His former colleagues have been paying tribute to their mentor and friend. “GMU Econ has lost an iconic and heroic figure,” wrote Pete Boettke, adding that Williams “taught with wit and passion the logic of economic reasoning.” “He is one of my few heroes,” wrote Don Boudreaux.
Rest in peace, Walter Williams.
Narrated by Nick Gillespie. Edited by John Osterhoudt. Additional graphics by Isaac Reese.
Photo: Everett Collection/Newscom