Message from Donald J. Boudreaux (Immediate Past Chairman)
and Daniel Houser (Chairman) Department of Economics
George Mason University
With the passing of Walter Williams, the world has lost a brilliant economist.
The economics profession boasts many excellent minds, but it has precious few with the ability and interest to do both high-quality, rigorous research and to communicate the lessons drawn from this research effectively to the general public. Walter has long been among these precious few. The author of 11 books, 2 monographs, dozens of academic articles (many in top-tier journals), and popular essays too numerous to count, Walter was a scholar’s scholar. He was for 40 years one of GMU’s greatest assets – and champions. (A quick story: Shortly after GMU’s first Nobel Prize winner, James Buchanan, was awarded the prize in 1986, several GMU economists, including Buchanan and Walter, were at a public gathering in Richmond. While there, Buchanan noticed that the number of people milling around to speak to Walter was much larger than was the number milling around to meet Jim. “I realized then,” Jim would say with admiration for Walter, “that I’m only the second most famous economist at George Mason.”)
Walter’s principal scholarly research was devoted to studying the effects on minority groups of markets as well as of government policies. Creatively examining the data using rigorous economic theory, Walter documented many of the unintended consequences on minority groups of well-intentioned government policies. His 1982 book, The State Against Blacks, is a classic contribution to this research. Written straightforwardly and without pretense, Walter documented with data the denial of opportunity inflicted on people of color by policies such as minimum-wage legislation and occupational-licensing requirements, as well as the reduced access to affordable housing caused by rent control.
Along similar lines, Walter – in his 1989 book, South Africa’s War Against Capitalism – deployed tightly argued economic theory and carefully analyzed data to criticize South Africa’s apartheid regime as well as some proposed alternatives to apartheid.
In each of these books is displayed Walter’s courageous iconoclasm. While the economic theory that he used is thoroughly mainstream, his application of this theory to politically sensitive questions led him to conclusions that were often at odds with popular beliefs – popular beliefs held passionately. Critics challenged him incessantly, and he responded patiently and compellingly. Sadly, some critics hit him below the belt, questioning his motives and slinging at him horrific slurs. Yet Walter never stooped to their level. Agree or not with Walter Williams, all who knew him were struck by just what a principled person – a man of deep integrity – he was.
Economics is an unusual scientific discipline in that comprehension of an uncommonly large number of its central tenets is easily achieved by non-economists. Much of what makes someone a ‘good’ professional economist, therefore, involves applying these tenets in unaccustomed ways. When this application occurs, surprising features of reality are revealed. Among Walter’s greatest skills was his ability both to convey to the general public an understanding of economics’ central tenets and to then enable his audience to ‘see’ features of reality that were previously out of their line of vision.
Walter’s long-running and very popular syndicated column might appear at first to be just another stream of words poured into the swollen river of punditry. But it’s not: Nearly every column has the mark of a master economist, skillfully using economic reasoning to make important points about economic reality or public policy. These points often are the fruits of his research. That Walter was 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. This column, along with Walter’s appearances on radio and television, made him known and beloved by millions. No individual has done as much as has Walter Williams over the past four decades to make known the name “George Mason University.”
Finally, Walter contributed to scholarship also in what is perhaps the most gratifying way possible for a scholar: through his students. For more than two decades Walter taught the most foundational course in Mason’s Econ PhD program: Micro Economic Theory I – a teaching task, by the way, that is unusually demanding of the professor’s time and energy. The number of students who learned from Walter to rigorously think like an economist in preparation to do original research is immense. Many of his former students are today leading scholars. And if you talk with any of these individuals, each will soon reveal his or her gratitude for the excellent grounding in economic theory achieved in Walter’s Micro Theory course.
Walter Williams had a remarkable career of relevant and rigorous economics scholarship and research. His loss is inconceivable. We will miss him deeply.
December 02, 2020