Walter E. Williams passed away on December 2, 2020. The economics profession, George Mason University, and public discourse in general have lost an important voice. I was once his student and have fond memories of Dr. Williams telling some parable before applying all the traditional economic models and statistical evidence. I remember him as the true champion of calling out and opposing systemic racism. I find it tragic that in this year known for its ‘racial reckoning’ that so many people who claim to be allies of Blacks, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOCs) have such deep misunderstandings of what Walter Williams stands for. I hope they rediscover Walter’s book The State Against Blacks and realize the contributions he has made to identifying historic systems that perpetuated inequality.
How did Walter Williams influence my life? Three decades ago, I was a know-it-all grad student taking Dr. Williams’s labor economics class. Later, he served on my dissertation committee, temporarily assuming a lead role while my chair was on maternity leave. He was a great classroom instructor and an insightful outside reader of my efforts. He was one of my favorite professors. I do not claim to have a professional relationship beyond that, but his influence on me has been pervasive.
I learned four important things from Dr. Williams. First, I did not know it all, or even close – and he did not suffer fools lightly. Second, Dr. Williams did not claim to know it all; he just claimed to apply the tools of microeconomics to individual choices amidst everyday problems. He really should have been the author of Freakonomics. Third, sometimes seemingly neutral government policies conceal systemic racism. Fourth, the unit of action is the individual. This individualism as method was the foundation of microeconomics at that time, but there is enormous social pressure to transfer the unit of action to groups, or to confuse methodological individualism with selfishness or rugged individualism. No group-think in Dr. Williams’s class.
Years later, Walter’s mode of analysis served me well when I went to law school – the unit of action in the administration of justice must be the individual. Justice involves an individual defendant on trial for his or her own actions. Individuals cannot be held responsible for actions by others who seem to share some similar characteristic. Groups cannot be held responsible for actions of an individual who seems to share some characteristic. Even class action suits rely on named plaintiffs to represent the class and merely attempt to aggregate cases with similar facts.
Walter’s influence goes well beyond my own education. The thousands of students whom I have taught are unwitting beneficiaries of Walter’s insistence on high standards, yet understanding that none of us not know it all. I attempted to pass on Walter’s focus on problem solving technique and reliance on evidence. Many academics claim to follow the science wherever it leads, but all too many wilt when the results they find are counter-intuitive or politically unpopular. Walter truly followed the evidence wherever it led. In Walter’s case, it often resulted in disagreement with what many people wanted him to believe.
The current anti-racism movement as led by formal trainers (eg., https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/20/03/what-makes-effective-anti-bias-training) claims to be uncovering implicit bias and healing the trauma caused by social systems that deliver inequality, even if beneficiaries were unintentional. Anti-bias trainers claim that whites harbor bias against BIPOCs, even if the bias is implicit, and all whites are beneficiaries of systemic racism even if they don’t intend to be so. Past Progressive heroes are being dismantled, and past Progressive housing policies are being re-evaluated because government used them to redline Black neighborhoods. Anti-bias trainers seem to acknowledge that other people may be wrong on policy, even when those other people have good intentions. It is my hope that a re-evaluation of Walter Williams could also lead anti-bias trainers to show some humility and acknowledge that they themselves might be wrong occasionally on what causes and perpetuates inequality.
Walter’s research demonstrated how several government policies disproportionately harmed many Blacks, including some examples intended to help Blacks. Before turning to race, let me offer a Walter-like illustration. There are some public policies that can be more effective without uniformity. Consider feeding the hungry. We do not need to eat in community soup kitchens to assure that poor people have access to food. Nor do we need to give the same food to everyone. But if government does approach the problem with soup kitchens or equal distribution, then government has to decide what meals to serve. Immediately, we run into both physical and cultural obstacles. Some people of Irish descent have blood conditions harmed by iron-rich food, while some other people need iron-rich food. Some religions have conflicting food restrictions. If government chooses to solve hunger by providing food itself, then there will be winners and losers – even though there doesn’t have to be.
Government decisions are not random. Consider decisions made by simple majority rule. If in the food example, there are five people, three of whom need extra iron but two that are sensitive, the two are going to lose systemically. It turns out that government-delivered equality can perpetuate inequality. In this case, there was never a need to have everyone eat the same food. Why adopt uniform food distribution? Maybe it was a desire to eradicate inequality. Maybe it was the belief that food was too important to be left to non-government institutions. Or, maybe lack of faith in individuals to choose their own food. But whether one of these reasons or some other, government equal food distribution can lead to unequal equality.
I believe that Walter would have liked the food example, and would not be surprised if a similar illustration can be found in his voluminous writings. Certainly, I chose it to give readers a taste of his classroom style.
His academic writing was more practical. In The State Against Blacks, Walter identified several policies that he believed perpetuated inequality. One example was the taxi-cab cartel system common in many cities prior to Uber. Prior to the medallions, entrepreneurial people had relatively low cost to enter the taxicab business as independent operators. Taxi-cab regulation raised the cost of entry, perpetuating ownership relations at the time of formation. As a result, regulation often had the effect of perpetuating inequality.
Legal activists worked to challenge some practices Walter identified. For example, the Institute for Justice (IJ) teamed with local NAACP chapters to challenge local taxi regulations that had the effect of cartels. After fifty years of not licensing a new taxi-cab firm, the city of Denver licensed Freedom Cabs after pressure from the NAAACP and IJ in 1995. (https://ij.org/case/jones-v-temmer/) Denver’s blanket ownership denials seem race neutral on their face, but none of the taxi firm owners were Black when the city started enforcing the cartel.
He found similar tendencies for regulations for occupational licensing. Regulations to assure that tradespeople, doctors, etc. are fully qualified to perform their professions are common. However, some regulations in the name of consumer safety are thinly veiled attempts to protect cartels similar to the taxi example above. Again, there is an odd resistance among some Progressives to his insights. In 2015, the Obama Administration published its report on occupational licensing. The report pays very little attention to the potential for licensing to be used to perpetuate systemic inequality, although it does mention potential impact on immigrants. (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/licensing_report_final_nonembargo.pdf). Perhaps the new racial reckoning can rediscover Walter’s work on how government licensing regulation can perpetuate inequality.
Probably most controversially, he also found systemic inequality in minimum wage laws. Walter dug through employment and wage data sources of the early twentieth century. He found that the gap between unemployment rates between whites and Blacks expanded with enactment of wage and unionization laws.
Context matters. Unionization was encouraged both by New Deal labor department policy and by government contracting policies. But, some unions were still openly racist and discriminated against Black workers during the 1930s. In some cases, New Deal labor policies had the result of firing Black workers and hiring firms with higher paid white workers. But a firm’s own profit motive would tend against such a move. In this setting, minimum wage laws had the result of removing the incentive of firms to switch away from unionized white workers. (see pages 180-181 of file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/THE_NEW_DEAL_VOLUME_ONE.pdf)
Walter spent much of his later career translating the jargon-ridden work of economists for the general public. I regret not having the opportunity to debate hundreds of these topics with him. But most of all, I regret that he will not see first-hand the inevitable return to his research topics. I just hope that today’s analysts have the fortitude to follow that research wherever the evidence leads, even if some of their well-intentioned equity policies turn out to be wrong.
Walter Williams, I will miss your little chuckle that preceded your parables. RIP.