Walter Williams, who teaches at Virginia’s George Mason University and writes a syndicated newspaper column on the side, is usually referred to as a black economist. I would prefer it if he were called a good economist who happens to be black. He is “free market” to his bone marrow, a devotee of Hayek and Mises, and he doesn’t miss a bet in scoring points against interventionism wherever it rears its ugly head.
Naturally, since he is black, his attention is frequently directed to the consideration of how bad economics hurts his fellow blacks. His All it Takes Is Guts: A Minority View (Regnery Gateway, 1130 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036, 189 pp., $16.95 hardback), a collection of his sharp newspaper columns, returns again and again to such topics as quotas, comparable worth laws, and the minimum wage. These are things that lower standards of living for everybody, save for a favored few, but they work particular hardship on blacks as the most vulnerable individuals in society.
Williams objects to quotas in hiring because, as it seems to him, their use comes within the scope of a bill of attainder. They fix blame for past wrongs to blacks on people who had nothing to do with the original injustices. In a column titled “Quotas are Unconstitutional” Williams takes, for an example, “the white kid who’s denied admission to a particular college in order to meet quota requirements for a black kid.” “How,” he asks, “is that white youth accountable for slavery and past oppression of blacks?” The wrong done to the white kid is obvious. But the black kid who is favored is hurt, too. He will be suspected of getting a diploma without really qualifying for it.
To universalize his approach to the harm done by quotas, Williams applies his arguments to women and to minorities in general. He is particularly scathing about judges who use busing to establish arbitrary racial mixes in schools.
The minimum wage has been a prime preoccupation with Williams for ten years. He objects to it on logical grounds: no sensible company is going to hire people for long whose contribution is not worth their keep. The logic of the Williams approach is amply buttressed by statistics. Anybody who is unskilled can have a hard time if minimum wages are set too high, but black teenagers who have had poor schooling are particularly vulnerable.
“Economists,” says Williams of the minimum wage, “. . . differ on how much unemployment is caused by it.” But they agree on the fact that black teenage unemployment has been increasing for a decade. It is now around fifty per cent, more than double that of white teens.
The big unions, says Williams, like minimum wage laws for selfish reasons. The laws keep the unskilled out of the labor markets. But the unions here are shortsighted. Mechanization is the obvious answer of the employer who can’t afford the luxury of hiring high-wage union labor. Williams devotes several good columns to the question of comparable worth. He is particularly amused by the feminists’ efforts to equate secretarial skills and truck driving. Point systems may be devised to equalize them, but the market will rule in the end simply because those fitted to drive trucks are less numerous than potential stenographers.
Protectionism is another topic that gets caustic attention in typical Williams columns. The plight of specific steel workers arouses his compassion, but costs, he says, are costs. The benefit side of steel protection is that profits will momentarily rise as a tariff goes into effect. But Williams points,to the cost side. “Manufacturers of steel-using products,” he says, “face higher input prices. One effect is to raise the price of such goods as autos, washing machines and filing cabinets. If these goods cost more, consumers buy fewer of them. That results in reduced employment in those industries. So the tariff on foreign steel shifts unemployment from the steel industry to some other industry.”
Williams has made several trips to South Africa. He was disgusted with apartheid, but he has never seen the sense of applying sanctions to South African industry. Where sanctions are effective, they only succeed in putting blacks out of work. Williams horrified many of his listeners in South Africa when he said the two sides in the fight over apartheid deserve each other. They are both stupidly socialist in Williams’ opinion.
On South Africa’s government-owned television Williams pointed out that the leadership of the country “is ignorant of the economic definition of socialism, which is government ownership and/or control over the means of production. In South Africa, the government owns coal-to-oil conversion plants, railroads, the telephone company, and other major industries. Through licensing and regulation it controls all enterprises from banks, gold mines, and insurance companies to supermarkets. It even tells its citizens when they may buy toilet tissue, soap, and dog food.”
Williams found that white businessmen in South Africa would love to hire more blacks, but the law thwarts them “in the name of maintaining ‘labor peace.’ Racist labor unions and other vested interests use government to get laws written which bar blacks from competing. Blacks are not allowed to open businesses in white areas. But . . . whites are not allowed to open businesses in black areas either.”
Black South Africans follow Archbishop Tutu in speaking out against capitalism and for socialism. At the same time they answered “yes” to such questions as “Do you think you should be able to purchase property where you want?” Williams decided that blacks in South Africa were really for capitalism without knowing it.
“The most constructive step the South African government can make,” says Williams, “is to own up to the fact that it is a socialistic regime. In fact, socialism is the number one enemy of the entire continent of Africa.” The history of sub-Saharan Africa seems a particular scandal to Williams. “Uganda,” he says, “won independence in 1962. But black rule didn’t bring freedom and prosperity. Instead, under Idi Amin, more than 50,000 blacks were murdered . . . . The same story of oppression and murder repeats itself whether it is in the newly formed government of Zimbabwe, Zaire, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, or the never- colonized Ethiopia.”
Americans must condemn South African apartheid, says Williams, but “the solutions to Africa’s problems go far beyond the mere installation of a black government to replace a white one.” The Zulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi may have the answer. He would apply the thinking of James Madison to the South African situation, with tribal rights substituted for states’ rights, and with a Bill of Rights protecting the individual of whatever color.