Opinion: Remembering Walter E. Williams, a champion of freedom

Timothy G. Nash

On Dec. 1, the world lost an icon with the passing of Walter E. Williams.

Williams advised numerous American presidents and world leaders. His teaching and research career spanned more than 50 years at places ranging from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution to George Mason University, where he was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics.

Williams had the rare ability to write and publish the highest of scholarship while still communicating his ideas to popular audiences. Williams’ writing appeared in prestigious academic journals, including the American Economic Review as well as the Wall Street Journal. Williams authored 10 books, among his most popular were "The State Against Blacks" (1982) and "American Contempt for Liberty" (2015).

Williams scholarship covered numerous fields ranging from economics and education to politics and race, Nash writes.

Williams' scholarship covered numerous fields ranging from economics and education to politics and race. He was most passionate about minimum wage laws and school choice. 

Williams recognized minimum wage laws would increase overall wages and benefit the highest skilled in a wage group. However, as a champion of freedom, what he objected to was government rather than the market determining wage increases. His research noted the harmful effects minimum wage laws had on the upward mobility of low-skilled and under-educated workers. 

If workers' job attributes were not worth the higher minimum wage, they could lose their jobs, businesses often closed or never open and alternative work was difficult to find. In addition, the low-skilled worker often would not have an opportunity for gainful employment and growth, being replaced by technology such as ordering kiosks at fast-food restaurants.

Williams concluded that minority neighborhoods were especially harmed by minimum wage laws as business in general was not as diverse or profitable and K-12 education underperformed. 

Williams favored school choice to improve failing public schools. He believed that the best way to improve underperforming K-12 schools was to introduce competition. If parents in an underperforming K-12 school district could direct the equivalent of tax dollars per capita to educate their children to another public or private school in the area, this freedom of movement would create competition, forcing all schools to improve or risk going out of business.

Williams believed forms of “choice” exist in the United States at the collegiate level, making U.S. higher education the envy of the world. Many federal and some state dollars are awarded directly to students with the student choosing the college or university they will attend.

I knew Williams for more than 30 years. He had a great sense of humor and a kind heart. Anyone who had an interaction with him left wiser from the exchange. We met in Houston as educators on a program designed to teach economics to Texas high school teachers sponsored by the Free Enterprise Institute and Abilene Christian University.

Soon after, Williams came to Northwood University to be part of a four-day seminar on economics sponsored by American Express Financial Planners. A few years later, I drove a group of Northwood students to a Detroit Economic Club luncheon to listen to Williams address an audience of more than 1,000 people. Though more than 20 years ago, I still remember vividly the appreciation my students had for being able to hear Williams' presentation. 

My fondest memory of Williams was when he agreed to the inclusion of one of his essays in our university’s cornerstone textbook, "When We Are Free."

Walter was a staunch advocate for freedom, especially economic freedom. He opposed most systems of government intervention. He believed that laissez-faire capitalism was the wellspring of human progress and afforded the most moral, ethical, productive and inclusionary economic system humans ever designed.

The world is a far better place for the 84 years Walter E. Williams spent on Earth.

Timothy G. Nash is director of the McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at Northwood University.