30 of Walter Williams’s Best Quotes on Liberty, Rights, Property, and Coercion

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by Gary M. Galles


Walter E. Williams, who many consider one of the greatest modern economists, has passed away at age 84.

My connections with Walter go back to UCLA, where we both got our doctorates (though I was a bit later, and it was my misfortunate we did not overlap). Then I started writing popular articles in defense of Americans’ liberty not too long after he did, which made me very aware of his writing (in fact, I once jokingly told my wife that I didn’t like him because his articles were often too good a substitute for mine). And I know lots of people with connections to George Mason University and stories about him.

Because many were closer to Walter than I, the large outpouring of appreciation and endorsements upon his passing is better done by others. But I believe that I have something worth adding for those who didn’t know about him but whose interest in his work has been piqued by the powerful response to his passing.

In 2016, I published a book titled Lines of Liberty, in which I curated what I felt were the best quotes on liberty I could find, by those who had labored in the front lines to defend it. Walter was not included, like his best friend, Thomas Sowell. But that was only because I had restricted my attention to people who had died, so I could consider the entirety of their work. Now, while I have not yet had time to do more than scratch the surface of his work, offering an initial collection of some of his most important insights may be the best tribute I can offer.

I must say that after many years of thinking about liberty, I can get a thrill out of a well-made, ear-catching argument on its behalf. Reading Walter’s words gave me such a thrill. But it was quickly obvious that there was far too much inspiration and wisdom to fit in a compact space. So I limited my collection to very short statements on only a few of the core issues he dealt with.

Consider my “top ten” lists (so far) in three different areas Walter thought deeply about as just the beginning of wisdom that can be found in Walter’s work, and as an invitation to further consideration.

1. My definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree?…how much of what I earn belongs to you–and why?

2. If one person has a right to something he did not earn, of necessity it requires that another person not have a right to something that he did earn.

3. Nothing in our Constitution suggests that government is a grantor of rights. Instead, government is a protector of rights.

4. There is no moral argument that justifies using the coercive powers of government to force one person to bear the expense of taking care of another.

5. Government has no resources of its own…government spending is no less than the confiscation of one person’s property to give it to another to whom it does not belong.

6. We don’t have a natural right to take the property of one person to give to another; therefore, we cannot legitimately delegate such authority to government.

7. Exercise of a right by one person does not diminish those held by another.

8. No matter how worthy the cause, it is robbery, theft, and injustice to confiscate the property of one person and give it to another to whom it does not belong.

9. The better I serve my fellow man…the greater my claim on the goods my fellow man produces. That’s the morality of the market.

10. The act of reaching into one’s own pockets to help a fellow man in need is praiseworthy and laudable. Reaching into someone else’s pocket is despicable.

  1. Government is about coercion. Limiting government is the single most important instrument for guaranteeing liberty.
  2. Democracy is little more than mob rule, while liberty refers to the sovereignty of the individual.
  3. The true test of one’s commitment to liberty and private property rights…comes when we permit people to be free to do those voluntary things with which we disagree.
  4. In a free society, government has the responsibility of protecting us from others, but not from ourselves.
  5. The essence of government is force, and most often that force is used to accomplish evil ends.
  6. Economic planning is nothing more than the forcible superseding of other people’s plans by the powerful elite backed up by the brute force of government.
  7. If we buy into the notion that somehow property rights are less important, or are in conflict with, human or civil rights, we give the socialists a freer hand to attack our property.
  8. Substituting democratic decision making for what should be private decision-making is nothing less than tyranny dressed up.
  9. It’s government people, not rich people, who have the power to coerce and make our lives miserable.
  10. 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.
  1. Always be suspicious of those who…claim their way is the best way and are willing to force their way on the rest of us.
  2. People who denounce the free market and voluntary exchange…are for control and coercion.
  3. Economic planning is nothing more than the forcible superseding of other people’s plans by the powerful elite backed up by the brute force of government.
  4. Politicians have immense power to do harm to the economy. But they have very little power to do good.
  5. What our nation needs is a separation of “business and state”…That would mean crony capitalism and crony socialism could not survive.
  6. The best good thing that politicians can do for the economy is to stop doing bad. In part, this can be achieved through reducing taxes and economic regulation, and staying out of our lives.
  7. If we care about our remaining liberties we must at some point …let politicians and bureaucrats know we will not tolerate further encroachment on our God-given rights to liberty.
  8. The public good is promoted best by people pursuing their own private interests.
  9. Most of the great problems we face are caused by politicians creating solutions to problems they created in the first place.
  10. If we’re ignorant, we won’t even know when government infringes on our liberties. Moreover, we’ll happily cast our votes for those who’d destroy our liberties.

Walter Williams had a great deal of wisdom to offer, and he passed that wisdom on to many. But there are many more of us who could still benefit from it.

I hope the examples here touch a chord with readers and lead them to further consideration of what he understood.

Walter will be gone, and widely missed, but his insights are not.

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

Source: FEE


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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