Liberty Matters

Still Under Construction: Closing Remarks on Continuing Williams’ Legacy

And so we have come to the end of our series, but it is an end that portends new beginnings. While Dr. Williams no longer walks among us, his spirit still informs the work of such thinkers as Harold A. Black, John Sibley Butler, Donald J. Boudreaux and Ramon P. DeGenarro. What I have found interesting over the course of this discussion is that while there were slight differences in perspective among the scholars honoring Williams’ legacy, certain themes - such as skepticism of public policy and the defining role of personal choice – informed each. This speaks to the unyielding consistency of Williams’ long history of scholarship. To Williams, as to the members of the discussion, only outcomes matter. This is at the heart of the economic way of thinking.
Professor Black provided insight into Williams’ mistrust of income redistribution and the War on Poverty. He correctly points out that among those who finish high school, find gainful employment, reside in two-parent homes, and stay out of the criminal justice system, poverty rates remain in the single digits. This holds true without regard to race and is critical because studies have shown that poverty is the single largest determinant of crime, and crime is one of the largest determinants of poverty. A vicious circle can be difficult to escape. Social policies that ignore these realities often result in what economist Paul Craig Roberts and legal scholar Lawrence M. Stratton have poignantly termed “the tyranny of good intentions.” There is simply no input level at which good intentions negate ineffective policy.
While much of Don Boudreaux’s contribution focuses his admiration of Williams born through many years of friendship and working together as colleagues, he importantly notes Williams’ observation that policies such as minimum wage remove the costs of indulging discriminatory preferences. In the case of minimum wage laws, that was part of their original purpose, but this holds true even with laws explicitly intended to assist the disadvantaged. As Arrow points out, things such as wage differentials and discrimination in credit and housing markets are antithetical to the profit-maximization of forward concerns, and can only exist as a function of the taste-based preferences of insular social networks. Expressed in the simplest terms, left to its own devices, the market will weed out discriminatory actions as economically inefficient. Such actions can only be undertaken when externalities shield decision makers from bearing the costs of discriminatory network preferences. Incentives matter, and the incentives of public policy are not necessarily equilibrated to the incentives of the market.
John Butler took Williams’ view that the market held the key to the long-run success of minorities a step further. Capitalism has rendered irrelevant the historical methods of obtaining wealth and independence; namely, looting, plundering and enslaving ones’ fellows. While capitalism certainly has its flaws, they are relative and only magnified when compared to heaven and non-extant utopian societies. When compared to other economic systems, market societies demonstrate an undeniable history of higher per capita incomes, and as they require the protection of individual liberties to remain viable, greater levels of freedom.  I feel obligated to point out that “true capitalism” does not exist any more than “true communism,” but even our flawed mixed-market approximation has resulted in gains for the descendants of slaves that would be beyond imagination under any other system. This does not mean that the market is beyond criticism, and we must continue to have that honest discussion, but it has proven more beneficial to the interests of minorities than any other single vehicle. We must remember that much of the purpose of discriminatory laws such as Jim Crow was to prevent the participation of minorities within the wider market.
The theme of Ramon DeGennaro’s contribution is a perfect motif for my concluding remarks; our work is not yet done. He posits that more work needs to be done on the juxtaposition between capital and labor, and how the tension between the two combine with individual liberty and personal choice to create prosperity within the market. Williams, he notes, started that discussion, especially concerning how the dissolution of the Black family structure has created a permanent disadvantage for a large segment of the minority society, but he urges that more research be done in this area. This is a credible plea, in my point of view, and I believe that others will rise to the challenge. This conversation has highlighted other issues that require further, continuous discussion as well, and I look forward to having those discussions at the Williams Conference that is the result of this colloquium. Also, having had the benefit of viewing Dr. Black’s remarks prior to finishing my own, I must say that I am more than amenable to accepting the challenge of joining him and Dr. Butler in their work at 1776 Unites. We have started a good conversation here, but it is not yet concluded.