Walter Williams on government in a free society


Walter E.

Last September in Wichita economist Walter E. Williams spoke on the legitimate role of government in a free society, touching on the role of government as defined in the Constitution, the benefits of capitalism and private property, and the recent attacks on individual freedom and limited government.

Williams’ evening lecture was held in the Mary Jane Teall Theater at Century II, and all but a handful of its 652 seats were occupied. It was presented by the Bill of Rights Institute and underwritten by the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation.

Williams said that one of the justifications for the growth of government — far beyond the visions of the founders of America — is to promote fairness and justice. While these are worthy goals, Williams said we must ask what is the meaning of fairness and justice, referring to the legitimate role of government in a free society.

In the Constitution, Williams said the founders specified the role of the federal government in Article 1 Section 8. This section holds a list that enumerates what Congress is authorized to do. If something is not on the list, Williams said Congress is not authorized to do it.

The Article 8 powers that Williams mentioned are to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises; to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; to borrow money on the credit of the United States; to coin money; to establish post-offices and post-roads; and to raise and support armies. It is regarding these powers, plus a few others, that Congress has taxing and spending authority. “Nowhere in the United States Constitution to we find authority for Congress to tax and spend for up to two-thirds to three-quarters of what Congress taxes and spends for today.”

Farm subsidies, handouts to banks, and food stamps are examples Williams gave of programs that are not authorized by the Constitution. “I think that we can safely say that we’ve made a significant departure from the constitutional principles of individual freedom and limited government that made us a rich nation in the first place.”

The institutions of private property and free enterprise are the embodiment of these principles, Williams said. But there have been many successful attacks on private property and free enterprise. Thomas Jefferson, Williams said, anticipated this when he wrote “The natural progress of things is for government to gain ground, and for liberty to yield.”

Taxation and spending are the ways government has gained ground. Taxes represent government claims on private property.

But an even better measure of what government has done is to look at spending. From 1787 to 1920, federal spending was only three percent of gross domestic product, except during wartime. Today, that figure is approaching 30 percent, Williams said: “The significance is that as time goes by, you and I own less and less of our most valuable property, namely ourselves and the fruits of our labor.”

In the realm of economics, Williams said that the founders thought that free markets and capitalism was the most effective social organization for promoting freedom, with capitalism defined as a system where people are free to pursue their own objectives as long as they do not violate the property rights of others. An often-trivialized benefit of capitalism and voluntary exchange is that it minimizes the capacity of one person to coerce another, he told the audience. This applies to the government, too.

But for the last half-century, Williams said that free enterprise has been under unrelenting attack by the American people. Whether they realize it or not, people have demonstrated a “deep and abiding contempt” for private property rights and individual liberty.

Williams said that ironically, capitalism is threatened not because of its failure, but because of its success. Capitalism has eliminated things that plagued mankind since the beginning of time — he mentioned disease, gross hunger, and poverty — and been so successful that “all other human wants appear to us to be at once inexcusable and unbearable.”

So now, in the name of ideals other than freedom and liberty, we pursue things like equality of income, race and sex balance, affordable housing, and medical care. “As a result of widespread control by our government in order to achieve these higher objectives, we are increasingly being subordinated to the point where personal liberty in our country is treated like dirt.”

This ultimately leads to tyranny and totalitarianism, he said. To those who might object to this strong and blunt conclusion, Williams asked this question: “Which way are we headed, tiny steps at a time: towards more liberty, or towards more government control of our lives?” He said that the answer, unambiguously, is the latter.

It is the tiny steps that concern Williams, as they ultimately lead to their destination. Quoting Hume, he said “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” Instead, Williams said it is always lost bit by bit. If anyone wanted to take away all our liberties all at once, we would rebel. But not so when liberties are taken bit by bit, which is what is currently happening.

It is people’s desire for government to do good — helping the disadvantaged, elderly, failing businesses, college students — that leads to the attack on private property and economic freedom. But Williams explained that government has no resources of its own, meaning that for government to give one person money it must first — “through intimidation, threats, and coercion” — confiscate it from someone else.

Williams told the audience that if a private person used coercion to take money from someone and give it to another person, that act would universally be considered theft and a crime. It doesn’t matter how needy or deserving the recipient, it would still be theft. But Williams asked if there is any conceptual difference between that act and when agents of the government do the same. Williams says no, except that in the second act, where Congress takes the money, the theft is legal.

But mere legality doesn’t not make something moral. Slavery was legal in America for many years, but not moral. The purges of Stalin and Mao were legal under the laws of those countries. So legality does not equate to morality, Williams explained, and he said he cannot find a moral case for taking what belongs to one person and giving it to another to whom it does not belong.

Charity is “praiseworthy and laudable” when it is voluntary, but it is worthy of condemnation when government reaches into others’ pockets for charity. Those who accept the forced takings are guilty, too, he explained.

“The essence of our relationship with government is coercion,” Williams told the audience. This, he said, represents our major problem as a nation today: We’ve come to accept the idea of government taking from one to give to another. But the blame, Williams said, does not belong with politicians — “at least not very much.” Instead, he said that the blame lies with us, the people who elect them to office in order to get things for us. A candidate who said he would do only the things that the Constitution authorizes would not have much of a chance at being elected.

The further problem is that if Kansans don’t elect officials who will bring federal dollars to Kansas, it doesn’t mean that Kansans will pay lower federal taxes. The money, taken from Kansans, will go to other states, leading to this conundrum: “That is, once legalized theft begins, it pays for everybody to participate.”

We face a moral dilemma, then. Williams listed several great empires that declined for doing precisely what we’re doing: “Bread and circuses,” or big government spending.

But there is a note — only one — of optimism, Williams believes. The first two years of the Obama administration, along with the Democratic Senate and House of Representatives, has been so brazen in their activities in “running roughshod over our liberties” that people are starting to argue and debate the Constitution. State attorneys general are bringing suits against the federal government over Obama’s health care plan. State legislatures are passing tenth amendment resolutions. The tea party and other grassroots movements give him optimism, too.

We must also ask ourselves if we are willing to give up the benefits we get from government, he said. But most people want cuts in spending on other people, not ourselves, as “ours is critical and vital to the national interest.” With all of us feeling this way, Williams said the country is in danger.

Young people have the greatest stake in the struggle for limited government and economic freedom, as the older generations have benefited from a relatively free country and the economic mobility that accompanied it. He said he’s afraid we’re losing that: “I’m hoping that future generations will not curse us for bequeathing to them a nation far less robust, far less free, than the nation that our parents and our ancestors bequeathed us.”

In answering a question from the audience, Williams said he would be afraid of a constitutional convention to be held today, as some are advocating. We wouldn’t be sending people like John Adams. Instead, he said we’d be sending people like Barney Frank and others who have “deep contempt” for personal freedom.

In response to a question on regulation, Williams said that regulations like health care and uncertainty over taxation cause businesses to be afraid to commit money to long term investments. Uncertainty “collapses the time horizon” causing firms to look for investments that pay off in the short term rather than the long term. This contributes to unemployment, he said.

Williams also talked about the economic history of America. From its beginning to 1930, there were recessions and depressions, but there were not calls for the federal government to intervene and stimulate the economy. It wasn’t until the Hoover administration and the New Deal that the federal government intervened in the economy in order to “fix” the economy. Williams said that what should have been a “sharp two or three-year downtown” was turned in to the Great Depression — which was not over until after World War II — by government intervention. The measures being taken today are similarly postponing the recovery, he said. He added that most serious economic downturns are caused by government. It’s also futile for the government to spend the country out of a recession, which he likened to taking water from the deep end of a pool to the shallow end in order to raise the level of the shallow end. Government taking money from one person, giving it to another, and expecting the economy to rise is similarly futile.

A question about mainstream media and their representation of the issues of today brought this response: “You have to make the assumption, I believe implied in your question, that those people are ignorant, and if only they knew better, they would change their behavior. Human ignorance is somewhat optimistic, because ignorance is curable through education. I’m very sure that many of these people want government control. The elite have always wanted government control, and the media was very responsible in getting President Obama elected.”

In an interview, I asked what President Obama should say in his jobs speech. Williams recommended the president should reduce regulation and lower taxes, especially capital gains and corporate income taxes. The spending programs of the past will not help. But Obama’s constituency will not favor this approach. The spending on roads and bridges benefits labor unions, for example.

On those who accept who accept and benefit from government spending, Williams said that “one of the tragedies of our nation” is that the growth of government has turned otherwise decent people into thieves, because they participate in the taking of what belongs to someone else. But because of the pervasiveness of government, sometimes this is unavoidable.

I asked do we need better politicians — ones who will work to limit government — or do we need different rules such as a balanced budget amendment or spending constraints? Williams said that the bulk of the blame lies with the people, as politicians are simply doing what voters ask them to do. “The struggle is to try to convince our fellow Americans on the moral superiority of liberty and its main ingredient, limited government.” Politicians will then follow, he added.

I asked if we’ve passed some sort of tipping point, where people look first to government rather than voluntary exchange through markets. He said perhaps so, and mentioned another problem: Close to 50 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax. These people become natural constituents for big-spending politicians. As they pay no taxes — “no stake in the game” — they don’t care if taxes are raised or lowered.

On the issue of the subsidy being poured into downtown Wichita, Williams said the issue is an example of the “seen and unseen” problem identified by Frederic Bastiat. We easily see the things that government taxation and intervention builds, such as a convention center. But what is not easily seen is what people would have done with the money that was taken from them through taxation. While the money taken from each person may be small, it adds up.

On government funding for arts, an issue in Kansas at this time, Williams said that it ought to be an insult to artists that their work has to be funded through government forcing people to pay, as opposed to voluntary payments.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Dr. Walter E. Williams holds a B.A. in economics from California State University, Los Angeles, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in economics from UCLA. He has served on the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics, since 1980. His website is Walter Williams Home Page.


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