Commentary: A Memorial from a Student on Walter E. Williams

by Dr. Daniel J. Smith


In another devastating blow from 2020, we sadly suffered the loss of Professor Walter E. Williams, a distinguished scholar of economics at George Mason University. While his nationally syndicated Townhall columns and stints on the Rush Limbaugh Show made him a household name, I knew him personally as my graduate microeconomics professor.  

As a young Ph.D. student in his classroom, I was blown away by how he reduced complex economic subject matter into easily understandable and entertaining lessons. While expecting clarity from students, he also demanded analytical rigor. More than once, he chided me for responses to classroom prompts he found deficient. His exam questions were so difficult, he openly posted them on his website, causing each new batch of graduate students to spend endless hours debating the questions with fellow students. Even to this day, I still get in debates with my former classmates about the correct answers to some of these questions.

Williams received his formal economic training at the University of California, Los Angeles school, famous at that time for being the developers of a unique brand of economics; UCLA price theory, which stresses the role of relative prices in driving the structure of incentives, the flow of information, and the feedback mechanisms of profit and loss. UCLA price theorists thus develop a deep understanding – and appreciation for – the role of prices, and the underlying foundation of private property, in a free market. While at UCLA, Williams learned from economic giants such as Armen Alchain, Axel Lejonhufvud, a young Thomas Sowell, and MTSU alum, and future Nobel laureate, James M. Buchanan. 

While widely known for his public intellectualism, his scholarship was equally impressive. His primary academic contributions to economics were on the topic of labor discrimination. He found that labor regulation, such as the minimum wage and occupational licensing, often had the effect of excluding both African Americans and youth from the labor market, denying them the opportunity to acquire on-the-job experience and professional networks necessary for economic mobility and businesses ownership. In the extreme, such as in South Africa during apartheid, these discriminatory policies were adopted by privileged whites to exclude blacks from the labor force. 

Underlying his research was an emphasis on separating the intentions of policies from the actual effects of policies. Well-intended policies often have unintended consequences. Sometimes these unintended consequences, in a tragic twist, actually harm the very people or causes the policies are intended to address. This was the case, for instance, when he examined the effects of minimum wage laws. Williams stressed that if we actually wanted to make the world a better place, we should really care about policy consequences, not intentions. “Compassionate policy,” he says, “requires dispassionate analysis.” Just like aerospace engineers can’t ignore the law of gravity in their designs, policymakers can’t ignore sound economics, such as the laws of supply and demand, in formulating public policy. The failure to do so can be devastating, as can be seen by the deaths of millions of Soviet Union and Chinese citizens under communism

Williams also played an essential leadership role in developing George Mason University’s economics program. With his colleagues, he helped take George Mason University’s economics department from a community college program into one of the most prestigious and recognized economic departments in the world with two Nobel laureates to their name (one of them being James M. Buchanan). They did this by embracing a “moneyball” strategy, finding faculty punching above their weight in undervalued research programs, such as public choice, Austrian economics, and experimental economics. 

The intellectual success experienced at George Mason is very much the model I have followed in developing the Political Economy Research Institute at Middle Tennessee State University. Thus, in a very real way, we are building on Walter William’s legacy right here in Tennessee. While we can never hope to replace Professor Williams, we can train future Ph.D. students in economics to appreciate and teach, with clarity and rigor, sound economics. 

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Dr. Daniel J. Smith is the Director of the Political Economy Research Institute at MTSU and an Associate Professor of Economics in the Jones College of Business. He is also the Senior Fellow for Fiscal and Regulatory Policy at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter: @smithdanj1
Photo “Walter E. Williams” by Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. CC BY 3.0.









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2 Thoughts to “Commentary: A Memorial from a Student on Walter E. Williams”

  1. Beverly Burger

    Excellent tribute Dr. Smith!!! This is incredibly sad new to hear that the GREAT Dr. Walter E. Williams has died. He has left a huge hole in the world of public intellectualism. Indeed, his scholarship and academics contributions were impressive, and he was a very educated and wise man, but most impressive was Walter Williams was a man of great integrity and character. He will be greatly missed and his absence will be felt for generations. Here are three of my most favorite quotes from Dr. Williams:
    “Democracy and liberty are not the same. Democracy is little more than mob rule, while liberty refers to the sovereignty of the individual.” ― Walter E. Williams
    “Prior to capitalism, the way people amassed great wealth was by looting, plundering and enslaving their fellow man. Capitalism made it possible to become wealthy by serving your fellow man.” ― Walter E. Williams
    “The recognition of the fact that Congress has no resources of its own forces us to acknowledge that the only way Congress can give one American one dollar is to first, through intimidation, threats, and coercion, confiscate that dollar from some other American. If a private citizen did the same thing that Congress does, we would call it an immoral act—namely theft. Acts such as theft that are immoral when done privately do not become moral when done collectively. The moral tragedy that has befallen Americans is our belief that it is okay for government to forcibly use one American to serve the purposes of another. That in my book is a working definition of slavery.” ― Walter E. Williams, American Contempt for Liberty

    May God be with Walter Williams family during this sad time.
    Adieu and peace Walter!

  2. B Thomas

    “His exam questions were so difficult, he openly posted them on his website”

    Wow. They must have been brutal.

    Dr. Williams was a true Conservative in a world which does not understand or value conservatism. We are poorer for his departure.

    RIP Dr. Williams. My condolences to the Williams family.