I preface today’s blog entry by expressing my condolences to the family and friends of Dr. Walter E. Williams, who passed away this week on 2 December 2020 at the age of 84 due to complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and hypertension.
Dr. Williams was a noted economist, commentator, and academic. A professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, Dr. Williams also expressed his views as a noted columnist.
Dr. Williams espoused (rather eloquently, I might add) a classic liberal and libertarian bent in his lectures, speeches, and writings on economics, socioeconomics, and other social and political subjects.
As a self-proclaimed “small L” libertarian myself, I shared many of Dr. Williams’ views. If I have any quibble at all with Dr. Williams’ musings, it centers not on his commentary, but rather much on his chosen audience.
I came across an article, posted in an internet forum that I frequent, on Dr. Williams that I think levels a rather misguided, but at the same time accurate, charge against the late scholar and columnist…
That he failed in leveraging his great intellect and oratory in making his aforementioned ideological bent translate into a more substantive impact on public policy.
The article in question, written by John Conlin, is at the link below:
In fairness to Mr. Conlin, his indictment of Dr. Williams was not limited to just Dr. Williams, but also includes other late libertarian and conservative economic thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman. The specific indictment being that their “incredible fact-based insights” had “little to no impact on education and public policy” (Conlin, 2020).
Mr. Conlin goes on to say that “a substantial percentage of college students believe socialism is the answer and that it actually ‘works.’ A major American political party came very close to nominating a self-described socialist as its candidate for president, not once but twice”(Conlin, 2020).
Let me preface my reaction to Mr. Conlin’s charges by saying what I typically say regarding political ideologies, including libertarianism…
All political ideologies are based upon wishful thinking and fall apart when exposed to reality.
With my preface in mind, I posit the following two points in rebuttal to Mr. Conlin’s assertions:
Firstly, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the primary definition of socialism is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”. Obviously, the “self-described socialist” that Mr. Conlin refers to in his article is ostensibly one Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The ideology that Senator Sanders espouses is not socialism, but rather social democracy. Social democracy is both a movement (within the so-called progressive movement) and a description of a state or society which practices social democracy. This definition of social democracy, as evidenced by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of the term, states that the primary definition of the term is “a political movement advocating a gradual and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism by democratic means” with a secondary definition being “a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices” (Merriam-Webster, 2020).
It is arguable that the United States already practices the secondary definition of social democracy in many respects, but my rebuttal to Mr. Conlin’s piece is simply to point out that lazily using the buzzword “socialism” as a demonization of an opposing political ideology provides a rather disingenuous premise upon which he builds his mild critique of the late Dr. Williams.
Programs such as Social Security and Medicare, along with minimum wage laws and government subsidies to industries such as agriculture and energy are prime examples that we are far from being a purely laissez-faire economy.
Secondly, to suggest that a few preeminent economic thinkers like Dr. Williams can influence entrenched public policy in such a way as it eliminates said entrenched social democratic policies (such as the aforementioned Social Security Act and Medicare) is just as short-sighted as saying their words had no influence at all.
The fact that we still debate the merits of these social and economic programs and how the political parties are sufficiently bifurcated along these policy differences proves that Dr. Williams and his brethren indeed had a significant impact in influencing the conservative thought behind the Republican Party’s economic policy positions.
Mr. Conlin charges that despite our technological advancements over the last few decades, we as a society persist in implementing an economic ideology that goes back to the 19th century writings of one Karl Marx. I posit that Mr. Conlin’s indictment is a false equivalence logical fallacy. United States economic policy doesn’t not resemble the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx. Like other ideologies, Marx’s philosophy is hardly grounded in reality, but rather the same wishful thinking all ideologies (political or economic) are grounded in.
Lastly, (to reiterate the previous point) it is great thinkers like Dr. Williams, von Mises, Friedman, et al, that drive the influencers of public policy. That our country has not fully embraced European-style public economic policy is a testament to their influence.
Rest In Peace, Dr. Williams. Your influence is decidedly NOT a failure.
-The Rational Ram