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Posts Tagged ‘Walter Williams’

I’ve been fortunate to know Walter Williams ever since I began my Ph.D. studies at George Mason University in the mid-1980s. He is a very good economist, but his real value is as a public intellectual.

He also has a remarkable personal story, which he tells in his new autobiography, Up from the Projects. I’ve read the book and urge you to do the same. It’s very interesting and, like his columns, crisply written.

To get a flavor for Walter’s strong principles and blunt opinions, watch this video from Reason TV. I won’t spoil things, but the last couple of minutes are quite sobering.

I suppose a personal story might be appropriate at this point. My ex also was at George Mason University, and she was Walter’s research assistant. Walter would give multiple-choice tests to students taking his entry-level classes and she was responsible for grading them by sending them through a machine that would “click” for every wrong answer. For almost every student, it sounded like a machine gun was going off. Suffice to say, Walter’s classes were not easy.

So while I’m glad to say he’s my friend, I’m also happy I never took one of his classes.

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I haven’t commented on what’s been happening in Libya, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world. This isn’t because I don’t care, but rather because I don’t have much knowledge about the area and I’m not sure what, if anything, the United States should do. Or could do.

I will say, however, that one of my concerns is that these countries will stumble from one form of oppression to another. And maybe the new form of oppression (post-1979 Iran) will be worse than the old form of oppression (pre-1979 Iran). I suspect President Obama and his team understand this, which is why the White House is being very cautious.

What I would like to see, of course, is genuine freedom and liberty. But this is not the same as democracy.

Democracy and liberty can overlap, to be sure, but democracy also can morph into untrammeled majoritarianism – what is sometimes known as tyranny of the majority.

Interestingly, even researchers at the International Monetary Fund share my concerns. A recent study from the IMF reported that, “economic freedom [is]… beneficial to growth, while democracy may have a small negative effect.” In other words, give people liberty, and good things happen. Give them democracy, and the outlook is not nearly as encouraging.

Walter Williams, as is so often the case, explains the real issue. This is a long excerpt, but every word is worth reading, especially the quotes from the Founding Fathers.

Like the founders of our nation, I find democracy and majority rule a contemptible form of government.

…I’ll begin by quoting our founders on democracy. James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, said that in a pure democracy, “there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Virginia Gov. Edmund Randolph said, “… that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.” John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Alexander Hamilton said, “We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real Liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship.”

The word “democracy” appears nowhere in the two most fundamental documents of our nation — the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

…What’s the difference between republican and democratic forms of government? John Adams captured the essence when he said, “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.” That means Congress does not grant us rights; their job is to protect our natural or God-given rights.

For example, the Constitution’s First Amendment doesn’t say Congress shall grant us freedom of speech, the press and religion. It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

…In a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. As in a monarchy, the law is whatever the government determines it to be. Laws do not represent reason. They represent force. The restraint is upon the individual instead of government. Unlike that envisioned under a republican form of government, rights are seen as privileges and permissions that are granted by government and can be rescinded by government.

To highlight the offensiveness to liberty that democracy and majority rule is, just ask yourself how many decisions in your life would you like to be made democratically. How about what car you drive, where you live, whom you marry, whether you have turkey or ham for Thanksgiving dinner?

Here are a few of David Harsanyi’s sage comments, from an article he wrote for Reason. He makes many of the same points about the importance of protecting individual liberty, regardless of the sentiments of 51 percent of the general population.

…a number of anchors and talking heads have made a careless habit of using the words “democracy” and “freedom” as if they were interchangeable ideas. …Alas, it only takes 51 percent of you to ban a stiff energy drink or a decent light bulb—a crime against not only liberty but also decent luminosity. When liberals crusade to end electoral colleges or scoff at states’ rights, they are fighting for a more direct, centralized democracy in which liberty becomes susceptible to the temporary whims, ideological currents, and fears (rational and sometimes not) of the majority. When the tea party members talk about returning “power to the people”—as they’re apt to do on occasion—they’re missing the point, as well. We already defer too much power to other people. If you knew the people I do, you’d be chanting “power from the people.” …democracy is clearly a vast improvement over an autocracy. …Democracy without a moral foundation, economic freedom, or a respect for individual and human rights, though, has the potential not to be any kind of freedom at all. We all wish the Muslim world the best in shedding its dictatorships and theocracies and finding true liberty. But let’s not confuse two distinct ideas.

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School choice should be the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Rich people already have school choice, both because they have the ability to live in good school districts and they have the resources to send their kids to private schools. The children of poor people, by contrast, are warehoused in failing government schools. Here’s what Kevin Huffman recently said for the Washington Post.

In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school.

But if you are poor, you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment “choice” school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure – if your state doesn’t limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.

…We may have done away with Jim Crow laws, but we have a Jim Crow public education system.

…Consider the recent results from a test of 15-year-olds around the world. Headlines noted the embarrassing American mediocrity (31st out of 65 countries in math, with scores below the international average). Even worse, our results are profoundly segregated by race. White and Asian Americans are still in the upper echelon. But African American and Latino students lag near the bottom quartile of world standards. As we think about our game plan to “win the future,” our black and Latino students won’t be competing with China and Finland – they’re on track to scrap it out with Bulgaria and Mexico.

But school choice is only part of the answer. If parents lack a commitment to education (or are not even present in the home), then even good schools won’t translate into good students. Walter Williams explains.

The public education establishment bears part of the responsibility for this disaster, but a greater portion is borne by black students and their parents, many of whom who are alien and hostile to the education process.

…Violence, weapons-carrying, gang activity and student or teacher intimidation should not be tolerated. Students engaging in such activity should be summarily expelled.

Some might worry about the plight of expelled students. I think we should have greater concern for those students whose education is made impossible by thugs and the impossible learning environment they create.

Another part of the black education disaster has to do with the home environment. More than 70 percent of black children are born to unwedded mothers, who are often themselves born to unwedded mothers. Today’s level of female-headed households is new in black history. Until the 1950s, almost 80 percent of black children lived in two-parent households, as opposed to today’s 35 percent.

Often, these unwedded mothers have poor parenting skills and are indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to their children’s education. The resulting poorly behaving students should not be permitted to sabotage the education of students whose parents are supportive of the education process.

At the minimum, a mechanism such as tuition tax credit or educational voucher ought to be available to allow parents and children who care to opt out of failing schools. Some people take the position that we should repair not abandon failing schools. That’s a vision that differs little from one that says that no black child’s education should be improved unless we can improve the education of all black children.

…Our black ancestors, just two, three, four generations out of slavery, would not have tolerated school behavior that’s all but routine today. The fact that the behavior of many black students has become acceptable and made excuses for is no less than a gross betrayal of sacrifices our ancestors made to create today’s opportunities.

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I don’t think I’ve ever promoted a book since starting this blog, but the new autobiography from Walter Williams is too good not to recommend. But don’t believe me. Walter was just interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, and you can get a flavor for his blunt style and crisp analysis. Speaking for myself, I’m going to steal his line about how “Politicians exploit economic illiteracy.” Read the entire WSJ column here, but mostly get his book and read that.

Even in the antebellum era, when slaves often weren’t permitted to wed, most black children lived with a biological mother and father. During Reconstruction and up until the 1940s, 75% to 85% of black children lived in two-parent families. Today, more than 70% of black children are born to single women. “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do,” Mr. Williams says. “And that is to destroy the black family.”

…Walter Williams was a libertarian before it was cool. And like other prominent right-of-center blacks—Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele—his intellectual odyssey began on the political left.

…“I thought some laws, like minimum-wage laws, helped poor people and poor black people and protected workers from exploitation. I thought they were a good thing until I was pressed by professors to look at the evidence.”

…He earned his doctorate in 1972 from UCLA, which had one of the top economics departments in the country, and he says he “probably became a libertarian through exposure to tough-mined professors”—James Buchanan, Armen Alchian, Milton Friedman—”who encouraged me to think with my brain instead of my heart. I learned that you have to evaluate the effects of public policy as opposed to intentions.”

…in 1982 he published his first book, “The State Against Blacks,” arguing that laws regulating economic activity are far larger impediments to black progress than racial bigotry and discrimination. Nearly 30 years later, he stands by that premise.

…Mr. Williams’s writings have sought to highlight “the moral superiority of individual liberty and free markets,” as he puts it. “I try to write so that economics is understandable to the ordinary person without an economics background.” His motivation? “I think it’s important for people to understand the ideas of scarcity and decision-making in everyday life so that they won’t be ripped off by politicians,” he says. “Politicians exploit economic illiteracy.”

…”You find more and more black people—not enough in my opinion but more and more—questioning the status quo,” he says. “When I fill in for Rush, I get emails from blacks who say they agree with what I’m saying. And there are a lot of white people questioning ideas on race, too. There’s less white guilt out there. It’s progress.”

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Walter Williams has a column about the House GOP’s commitment to make sure legislation is consistent with the Constitution. As with most things he writes, it is very much worth reading. Walter starts by explaining what Boehner and the rest of the Republicans have promised to do. He then points out that – if they’re serious – this will require dramatic changes.

Here’s the House of Representatives new rule: “A bill or joint resolution may not be introduced unless the sponsor has submitted for printing in the Congressional Record a statement citing as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact the bill or joint resolution.” Unless a congressional bill or resolution meets this requirement, it cannot be introduced.

If the House of Representatives had the courage to follow through on this rule, their ability to spend and confer legislative favors would be virtually eliminated. Also, if the rule were to be applied to existing law, they’d wind up repealing at least two-thirds to three-quarters of congressional spending.

Walter’s column cites several Presidents that actually cared about the Constitution and vetoed legislation that would have expanded the federal government’s powers. The passages, from Presidents Madison, Pierce, and Cleveland, are inspirational – particularly compared to what we get from modern Presidents. George W. Bush, for instance, signed the McCain-Feingold legislation to restrict free speech, even though he recognized that bill made a mockery of the First Amendment.

Madison, who is sometimes referred to as the father of our Constitution, added to his veto statement, “The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.”

Here’s my question to any member of the House who might vote for funds for “constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses”: Was Madison just plain constitutionally ignorant or has the Constitution been amended to permit such spending?

What about handouts to poor people, businesses, senior citizens and foreigners?

Madison said, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”

In 1854, President Franklin Piece vetoed a bill to help the mentally ill, saying, “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity. (To approve the measure) would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.”

…President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill for charity relief, saying, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”

Last but not least, Walter debunks the notion that the “general welfare” clause is some soft of carte blanche for Congress to grab powers not explicitly authorized in Article I. Section VIII, of the Constitution.

Suppose a congressman attempts to comply with the new rule by asserting that his measure is authorized by the Constitution’s general welfare clause. Here’s what Thomas Jefferson said: “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.”

Madison added, “With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

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Walter Williams periodically has explained that the main beneficiaries of the so-called War on Poverty are all the bureaucrats who have very lucrative jobs in all the various redistribution programs, agencies, and departments. He calls these people “poverty pimps” and asks whether they actually have an incentive to solve problems since that would put their jobs at risk. Those are all interesting issues, but this post looks at the number of bureaucrats, by state, working in the “public welfare” industry (the Census Bureau has an interactive program that allows this type of calculation). Comparing that number of bureaucrats to each state’s population allows the creation of a “Poverty Pimp Index” showing the number of bureaucrats (at the state and local level) per 100,000 of population.

Surprisingly, New Hampshire is the worst state, requiring four times as many bureaucrats per capita to administer income-redistribution programs as Hawaii, which is the surprise winner as the most efficient state. I’m sure these numbers represent a gross over-simplification, and they may depend on how states classify employees, so this is nothing but a quick look at some interesting data. If anybody knows of more substantive research on the comparative efficiency of how states administer programs, please send it my way.

The Poverty Pimp Index (“public welfare” bureaucrats per 100,000 residents)

New Hampshire          360
Alaska                             302
New York                       290
Maine                              280
Wisconsin                      277
Pennsylvania               277
DC                                     277
Minnesota                     266
New Jersey                   255
Ohio                                 255

Kansas                             121
Idaho                               120
Georgia                           118
Texas                               113
South Carolina             104
Nevada                            99
Mississippi                     96
Indiana                            95
Florida                             92
Hawaii                              86

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Just because something is free, that doesn’t mean there is no cost. This is the core message of Walter Williams’ column, which uses the example of “employer-paid” Social Security taxes to explain how politicians specialize in giving us very expensive things for “free.”

Scarcity means there’s no free lunch. Having more of one thing requires having less of another. You might say, “Williams, that’s where you’re wrong. Someone gave me this newspaper and I’m reading your column for free!” Not true. If you weren’t spending time reading my column, you might have spent the time reading something else, chatting with your wife or children, or going out for a jog. You’re reading my column for a zero price but you’re not doing so at zero cost. You have to sacrifice something. There are zero-price services such as “free libraries,” “free public schools,” “free transportation” and free whatever. It doesn’t mean that costs are not being borne by somebody.

The vision of getting something for nothing, or getting something that someone else has to pay for, explains why so many Americans are duped by politicians. A congressional hoax that’s flourished for seven decades is the Social Security hoax that half of the Social Security tax (6.2 percent) is paid by employers, the other half (6.2 percent) paid by employees. The law says that if you are self-employed, you get to pay both halves. The fact of the matter is whether you’re self-employed or not, you pay both halves of the Social Security tax that totals 12.4 percent. Let’s look at it.

Suppose you hire me and our agreed-upon weekly salary is $500. From that $500, you’re going to deduct $31 as my share of the Social Security tax and you’re going to add $31 as the so-called employer’s share, sending a total of $62 to the IRS. Here’s the question: What is the weekly cost for you to hire me? I hope you answered $531.

…The reason why Congress created the fiction of the employer share was to deceive us into thinking that we’re paying fewer taxes than we in fact are.

Reminds me of P.J. O’Rourke’s famous line about, “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.”

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