Voices | Dec. 17-24

Remembering Walter Williams, Philadelphia hero of freedom

American flag
Walter Williams grew up in both West and North Philadelphia, and always in the poor areas of the city, roots he never forgot as he saw his career rise. Image: Tim Mossholder

On the night of December 1st, renowned economist and public intellectual Walter E. Williams taught a microeconomics class at George Mason University’s Arlington campus.

It would be the last class of his long and prolific life. The libertarian-conservative luminary was found dead in his car a few hours after the class ended. He was 84 years old.

Walter Williams (1936-2020) grew up in both West and North Philadelphia, and always in the poor areas of the city, roots he never forgot as he saw his career rise. His father left home when he was 3, leaving Williams and his sister in the hands of their mother. After graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School, he drove a taxi for work. Later, in the late 1950s, he served as a private in the United States Army and “waged a one man battle against Jim Crow from inside the army.” He was so forceful in challenging the status quo that a higher-up filed a court-martial against him, and Williams was transferred to Korea. That spirit of fighting for truth in the face of enormous backlash would become a theme throughout Williams’ academic career.

Eventually, Williams turned to academics, earning a PhD in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1972. In his early years as an economist, he was already a contrarian: “I was more than anything a radical…I was more sympathetic to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King because Malcolm X was…willing to confront discrimination in ways that I thought it should be confronted…But really, I just wanted to be left alone.” 

Despite his refusal to blindly accept popular and costless positions, he remained open-minded during his nascent stage as a young economist. “I thought some laws, like minimum-wage laws, helped poor people and poor black people and protected workers from exploitation…until I was pressed by professors to look at the evidence.”

That spirit of fighting for truth in the face of enormous backlash would become a theme throughout Williams’ academic career.

Williams returned to Philadelphia in 1973 after earning his doctorate, serving as an economics professor at Temple University for the remainder of the decade. It was during this period that he concluded that government intervention is harmful to the very people that the interventions are meant to help. Williams is especially known for his criticism of minimum wage and affirmative action laws. 

In 1982, Williams published his most famous book, “The State Against Blacks,” in which he explained how government regulations are a greater impediment to the economic mobility of black Americans than racial prejudice against them. His thesis has outraged many, but opened the eyes of others. Eric July, a black libertarian musician, attributes much of his libertarian worldview to Dr. Williams. “He explained what economics is…Walter Williams talks about how black communities struggle from an economic standpoint…South Africa used the minimum wage to price blacks out of the market.”

Williams pulled no punches when it came to the welfare state, either. “Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell have done a great job of highlighting that what the welfare state does is incentivize people to fail,” July said.

“If you get above that line, we take everything away from you…Communities have no incentives to build their own solutions – market solutions – because the state is being mommy and daddy.”

Dr. Williams also wrote favorably about freedom of association, the right to bear arms, the right for states to secede from the union, and the danger of the Federal Reserve. His views on these and other subjects were given the light of day in his syndicated column, “A Minority View,” which he began in 1980. He was prolific both as an academic and as a communicator of ideas: He had written hundreds of articles, book reviews, and commentaries for academic journals such as “American Economic Review” as well as magazines for public consumption, such as “Reason Magazine,” “The Wall Street Journal,” and “The American Spectator.” After his initial book in 1982, Williams wrote nine others, as well as the content for a PBS documentary called “Good Intentions.” He served as a guest host for Rush Limbaugh’s radio show from time to time.

Since 1973, Williams lived only miles away from his hometown of Philadelphia, settling down in Devon, Pa. There, he and his wife, Connie, raised their daughter, Devyn. Williams is survived by Devyn and one grandson.

Walter Williams understood what is perhaps the fundamental misunderstanding of those who think that the government can solve problems. In his 2015 book, “American Contempt for Liberty,” he wrote that “do-gooders fail to realize that most good is not done in the name of good but done in the name of self-interest.”

Dr. Williams has certainly done more for freedom than most. His ideas will continue to provoke, persuade, and ignite the flames of liberty for generations to come. Cheers to a libertarian force of nature who has gone to rest.

Logan Chipkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and a contributor to Broad + Liberty. @ChipkinLogan. This article was originally published at Broad + Liberty. Follow them on Twitter @BroadAndLiberty.

Enjoying this article?Consider joining AltPhilly, an exclusive community with access to members-only digital content and more.