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Dr. Walter E. Williams, R.I.P.

December 2, 2020

Dr. Walter Williams, a distinguished economist and long-time friend and advisor to The Heartland Institute, died December 2. He was 83.

Dr. Williams served for many years as a professor of economics at George Mason University where he was also chairman of the economics department from 1995 to 2001. Among his most influential books are The State Against Blacks (1982), All It Takes is Guts (1987) and South Africa’s War Against Capitalism (1989). All three books were “required reading” for the generation of libertarians who helped shape the movement in the 1980s and 1990s. 
 
Dr. Williams was an unusual economist. He was uncompromising in his conviction that maximum individual liberty not only was the best means of producing prosperity but was also essential to justice, peace, and even virtue. He was not afraid to take unpopular and radical positions. He knew there was a risk in being so outspoken. For a couple years, when he wrote a regular column, he would introduce a controversial topic by posing a rhetorical question to himself: “Williams, have you lost your marbles?”
 
And he was seemingly everywhere, speaking at conferences and seminars, substitute hosting for Rush Limbaugh, appearing in documentaries, and writing columns for newspapers and nearly every libertarian and conservative publication. His communication skills made him stand out in a field whose practitioners are better known for mumbling and pointing to charts and graphs.
 
Dr. Williams was also a Black man, notable because he excelled in a profession and was a major presence in a movement composed mainly of white men and, regrettably, few women. The mere presence of Dr. Williams, along with Dr. Thomas Sowell, a Stanford economist who celebrated his 90th birthday this year by releasing yet another book (Charter Schools and Their Enemies), was proof that “Black libertarian” was not an oxymoron. Their presence in the public arena powerfully contradicted the notion that people of color must be liberals or support the Democratic Party. Just the opposite, Williams would say: A Black man or woman would have to be especially stupid or foolish to trust the government to defend their rights or deliver on promises.
 
Is it a coincidence that counterfactual claims about “systemic racism” gained currency in the past year only as Williams and Sowell were less able physically to vigorously refute them? I think not. Dr. Williams in particular refused to tolerate fools gladly. He was a masterful debater and a commanding presence wherever he went. I would pity any Black Lives Matter spokesperson who had to debate him in a public forum or on television. Sadly, that will never happen.
 
Dr. Williams was an early supporter of The Heartland Institute and its work. He was a policy advisor and spoke twice at events organized by The Heartland Institute, in 1994 and 1999. (Video of the first presentation can be viewed here.) He was a regular source of inspiration and advice when both were sorely needed. His speeches conveyed the man he was: wise, principled, entertaining, and persuasive. To this day, people tell me they remember one or both of those speeches. 
 
The debate over race relations, once again in the headlines, will have to go forward without one of the world’s greatest public intellectuals. 
Author
Joseph Bast is a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute. He cofounded Heartland in 1984, serving as executive director then as president & CEO until January 2018. His research and writing focuses on climate change and energy policy.
jbast@heartland.org @JosephLBast
Dr. Walter Williams: The Role of Government in a Free Society (1994)