All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1996

Do the Right Thing

Keen Insights from a Sound Economist

Dr. Robbins is professor of political philosophy and Director of The Freedom School at the College of the Southwest in Hobbs, New Mexico.

Dr. Walter Williams, Chairman of the Department of Economics at George Mason University in Virginia, a syndicated columnist for the past 15 years, has collected his best newspaper columns from 1990 to 1994, sorted them into seven categories, and published them under the title Do the Right Thing.

Young Walter Williams grew up in a North Philadelphia housing project in the 1930s and ’40s. He thanks his mother, who “having been abandoned by her husband, raised two children by herself through difficult times. She is the one who gave me a spirit of rebelliousness [and] taught me hard lessons about independence and discipline. . . .” He later went on to earn his doctorate in economics from UCLA. Dr. Williams also thanks Providence “that enabled him to have teachers in high school and professors in college who didn’t give a damn about what color I was and held me accountable to high standards.”

The title Do the Right Thing reflects Dr. Williams’s political philosophy in two important respects: it is not enough to think the right thing—though all right action must start with right thinking—it is necessary to do, to act. Faith without works is mere lip service. Second, when one does act, one must do the right thing, the moral thing, not the expedient thing or the politic thing. Dr. Williams sees the source of American decline in the twentieth century as moral rot, in both our private lives and our public institutions.

In an age of philosophical and moral relativism and BOMFOG (the ubiquitous and false platitudes about unity in the brotherhood of man and fatherhood of God), Dr. Williams’s honesty and analysis may be painful for some delicate souls. “Regardless of whose sensibilities are offended,” he writes, “I do not hesitate to call things as I see them. Why? Because I care about our country and fear for its future as a free and prosperous nation.” More importantly, Dr. Williams cares about truth.

Williams is controversial, but then anyone worth listening to is controversial. Long before William Safire thought of characterizing Hillary Clinton as a congenital liar, Williams recognized the political class, especially Congress, as “charlatans, either ignorant or contemptuous of the Constitution.” Williams does not exaggerate. As one who worked on Capitol Hill for several years, I can attest to the accuracy of his observation. About the only thing sure to call forth more ridicule on the floor of Congress than a serious reference to the Constitution is a serious reference to the Bible as the Word of God. That means, of course, that many Congressmen cannot do the right thing, since they do not know or do not want to know what the right thing is.

Dr. Williams groups his essays topically: “Race and Sex,” “Government,” “Education,” “The Environment and Health,” “The International Scene,” and “The Law and Society.” A final collection, “Potpourri,” contains those columns not easily classifiable.

On race, Dr. Williams writes: “I consider myself fortunate to have had virtually all my education before it became fashionable for white people to like black people. That meant that my educators were free to challenge whatever nonsense I uttered without fear of accusations of racism.” Now, he writes, “The grossly fraudulent education received by a majority of black students in government-owned schools is a major problem. . . .” Dr. Williams makes it clear, however, that the problem is not one of racism, but of socialism: White students are also getting a “grossly fraudulent education” in the government schools.

One of Dr. Williams’s most important essays is one in which he defends the founders of America at the time of the Constitution against the charge that they were defenders of slavery. Williams quotes several, including Thomas Jefferson, James Otis, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Typical was the statement of Madison that slavery was “a barbarous policy.”

Dr. Williams brings to his analysis of contemporary issues the keen insights of a sound economist. He explains why businesses are in favor of regulations (it’s to keep down competition), why the self-esteem movement is so pernicious (it stifles effort and achievement), why a balanced budget is not enough (taxes and spending at today’s levels are legalized theft). There is hardly a significant and contemporary topic that Williams doesn’t discuss in this book. It is well worth reading, and Dr. Williams is well worth listening to.

  • Walter Williams served on the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics since 1980. He was the author of more than 150 publications that have appeared in scholarly journals. Learn more about him here.