On Liberty's Moral Superiority

R&L: Do you think the clergy’s view of the state as a means of solving the real problems minorities face has changed over the years?

Williams: The civil rights struggle in our country has been won. At one time black Americans lacked the constitutional guarantees others possessed. Now they have them. Major problems still remain in large segments of the black community, but they are not civil rights problems. The 66 percent illegitimacy rate among blacks nationally, the high crime rate, and fraudulent education are devastating problems; but they are not civil rights problems. So if you use a civil rights strategy, the solution will always be elusive.

The clergy have not learned this yet. Combating illegitimacy requires moral teaching. We can sing “We Shall Overcome” forever, but that won’t help a fourteen-year-old girl who has a baby or a thirty-year-old girl who is a grandmother. The Church, the family, and other institutions, have failed to pass on this lesson. Indeed, I might say that most of our major national problems have their roots in immorality.

R&L: In what institutional ways do you see the Church abdicating it’s role?

Williams: The Church used to take care of welfare and other social programs. The Church used to teach morality. Now the Church lobbies for increased government spending on various social programs. The Church contributed to immorality, for instance, when it supported socialism in Nicaragua. Ministers should be in the pulpit on Sunday preaching against state theft.

R&L: Do you see Haitian President Aristide as an example of this tendency?

Williams: He is a defrocked priest. He is not that different from many other priests. You can look at the Catholic bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter on the economy to see where the Church is going. When I read through that document very carefully, I said to myself, “Gee, some of these phrases sound familiar.” So I had a research assistant go back and look at the speeches of Hitler and Mussolini; and, low and behold, some of the terminology used by those two were in the bishops’ letter, things like, “we should give up our individualism to serve the social good.” There is real danger when people start talking this way.

R&L: Do you see your own thinking inspired by the Judeo-Christian ethic in any way?

Williams: Yes I do. I share the values of the Golden Rule. I share the notion of charity, and I make a distinction between charity and theft. Charity is a noble human motivation, but theft is a despicable one. The Judeo-Christian ethic is extremely important and wherever you see it practiced you find a more humane society.

R&L: Did you have any kind of religious formation growing up?

Williams: Yes, I was baptized and confirmed in St. Simon’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. I attended church every Sunday. As a young person, I got married in the Church. That probably had an influence on my life.

R&L: How do members of minority groups respond to your ideas? Some argue that the grassroots are more conservative among minority people, while the leadership of these communities tends to be more left-wing. Do you find this to be true?

Williams: Yes I do. You can say that the average black American tends to be fairly conservative, but much of the “leadership” tends to be more liberal. However, there is an increasing number of black people in audiences that I address who are very supportive. They are supportive because the programs and the promises of the past have not worked.

After years of spending billions of dollars by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the name of eliminating urban blight, there is today more urban blight than before HUD was created. Nobody can stand up and say that after years of spending trillions of dollars on welfare programs that everything is okay. Black people are beginning to search for different solutions.

R&L: It appears that your commitment to liberty is more than just pragmatic. Articulate its moral basis and tell me where this comes from in your own life experience.

Williams: I accept the views of John Locke and David Hume and other philosophers who influenced the Founding Fathers of our country. My core belief is that we all own ourselves. I belong to me and you belong to you. If you believe in self-ownership, certain forms of human behavior are either right or wrong. For example, murder is wrong because it violates private property, that is, my private property, my self-ownership. Rape is wrong. Theft is wrong. If you start with the basic premise of self-ownership, then certain absolutes of necessity follow. If it is wrong for me to take your money by force to give to a poor person, then the same is also wrong for government. I cannot give government any rights that I do not have. I do not have the right to steal from you, so I cannot give government that right either. Natural law undergirds my philosophical view, and I try to conduct my personal life that way.

R&L: There is an ongoing debate among advocates of the free market. Some say the market is inherently good because it naturally produces benefits for people, while others say it is good only to the extent that the participants in the market are good and virtuous. Have any thoughts on this?

Williams: I would identify market efficiency as a side benefit of something far more important. The market talks about moral relationships among individuals. The free market asks us to serve our fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces. In other words, I serve you by mowing your lawn, and you give me $20. This money is a kind of “certificate of performance.” I take this evidence of my service to you and go to a grocer and say, “I demand five pounds of steak that my fellow man produced.” In turn, the grocer says, “Did you serve your fellow man?” And I say, “Yes I did, and here are my $20 certificates.” That’s the morality of the market. It asks us to serve our fellow man, and the more we serve him the greater the claim we have on what he produces.

Contrast that with governmental immorality. Government can tell me, “Williams, you can sit on your butt and not mow Father Sirico’s lawn. And we will take what he has and give it to you.”

The rise of capitalism brought greater morality into our relationships. There is the biblical passage, “It is as difficult for a rich man to get into Heaven as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” That biblical phrase was quite appropriate for the time because wealth was most often acquired through capturing, plundering and looting your fellow man.

But, with the rise of capitalism, people like Bill Gates are rich because they have served their fellow man. Gates has made his fellow man very happy by building Microsoft computers and software. Fred Smith with Federal Express serves his fellow man, too. The morality of the free market should be stressed because it is far superior to any other method of allocating resources.

R&L: Morality is at the level of voluntary exchange. But capitalism opens up a whole host of opportunities for immorality. The fact that Gates is successful in developing and selling computers does not mean he is a moral person.

Williams: But he is behaving in a moral way.

R&L: With regard to the market.

Williams: Yes. I judge people by their behavior, whether Gates intends to make Walter Williams happy is not the issue. The fact is that Gates does make Walter Williams happy.

R&L: Draw a distinction between criminality and vice.

Williams: Criminality is when one engages in involuntary exchange, some type of coercion, fraud or misrepresentation. Vice, on the other hand, is an indiscretion we use to please ourselves. Drinking too much alcohol is a vice. However, that does not violate any law–unless I get into a car and drive. Gambling is a vice, too. It does not involve coercion or taking something that belongs to someone else.

If you like to sleep around with your neighbor, I think that’s immoral. But it’s a question to be handled not through law, but through admonishing and shunning.

R&L: Do you have a theory on the survival of socialist ideology after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Williams: Socialism and communism have no intellectual respectability except on a few college campuses. People who have lived under communism find it offensive. I think it is very dramatic that Reagan told Gorbachev to knock down the Berlin Wall, but it was the people who tore down statues of Stalin and Marx. I fear that communism has a new name–environmentalism. The environmentalists in our country have the same aim as the communists: coercion, regulation, and control. What we have is old wine in new bottles.

R&L: There seems to be a serious fracturing of the political consensus in America. Do you find this to be true?

Williams: Yes I do. Politicians have underestimated the level of anger in our country. More and more Americans who are trying to support their families are finding themselves increasingly taxed, regulated, and talked down to. Talk radio is one of the remarkable things happening today. It has become a town hall. Many Americans are finding out they are not alone. If you are against racial quotas, the intellectuals and media make you feel guilty of racism. Well, many Americans are finding out that they can oppose quotas and not be racist.

Americans are about to declare the government illegitimate. The government does many unconstitutional things by harassing law-abiding moral people, and Americans, in turn, are adopting the attitude of the Founding Fathers–Don’t Tread On Me.

R&L: How do you account for the difference between the agenda of the government and the agenda of the people?

Williams: In general the people are telling the government they want different things. Some politicians get elected to office because they promise their constituents goodies from Washington–highway construction funds, meals on wheels, aid in higher education. The problem is that 535 congressmen trying to satisfy their constituents produces something that in total none of us desire, namely more government regulations, more taxes, and more spending. I believe Americans are angry with the result. They are saying, “My congressman, who kept this Air Force base open in my district, is doing a wonderful job, but so-and-so’s congressman, who supports pornographic arts, is doing a lousy job.” I believe Americans have to focus their anger and tell Congress not to do what it is doing, as they are beginning to do.

R&L: Don’t you think voters’ behavior is a bit schizophrenic?

Williams: Yes I do. It’s not the people, per se. For example, the citizens of Michigan ask their congressmen for a number of things. But the citizens of other states ask their congressmen for different things. So the citizens in Michigan can perfectly justify what they are requesting of their congressmen and they will condemn what other citizens are asking their congressmen to do. Schizophrenia exists to the extent that this is true. In terms of reducing or eliminating government spending, they are in essence saying, “Don’t shoot me, shoot the guy behind the tree.”

R&L: It reminds me of Bastiat’s point that “the state is the myth that everyone can live at everyone else’s expense.”

Williams: You are absolutely right. I think everyone should read Bastiat’s book, The Law. We are becoming a nation of thieves by trying to live at everyone else’s expense. We have lost our moral mooring and the Church is partially responsible by failing to uphold its beliefs. One of the 10 Commandments says, “Thou shall not steal.” Now I am fairly confident that God did not mean, “Thou shall not steal–unless you get a majority vote.”

R&L: From where will a serious and effective political movement for change come–the top or from the people below?

Williams: It is going to come from below. We see this happening all over the country. The Tenth Amendment movement is one example. State legislatures in Colorado, Missouri, Illinois, California, and Hawaii have signed resolutions resisting federal intrusion and mandates. This has bipartisan support and is coming from the mayors and city councilmen who are pressuring the state because these unfunded mandates are bankrupting fiscally prudent cities and municipalities. There are strong secessionist movements in our country, particularly in Montana and Louisiana. You find some western counties resisting. Farmers, for instance, resent the U.S. Forest Service telling them how they can use their land. So there is rebellion–mostly in the West.

R&L: You spent your life advancing the free market on two levels: the academic and the popular. Where have you been most effective and why?

Williams: One of the shortcomings of economists is their inability to make their subject understandable to the ordinary layman. For years, one of my challenges has been to explain potentially complex economic ideas to ordinary people. When asked what I do, I say, “I seek to sell my fellow Americans on the moral superiority of liberty.” This is an extremely important job. One has to write economic journal articles to get promoted, so you go through the hoops and do them. However, I think the more important job is to talk to the common man.