Walter E. Williams: On Democracy and Tyranny
Posted December 03, 2020
“We may not see his like again,” Dr. Thomas Sowell wrote yesterday in an emotional letter about his dear friend, Walter Williams. “And that is our loss.”
Williams, as you may’ve heard, passed away yesterday, Dec. 2, 2020, at the age of 83.
Looking back, it was, in part, Williams’ razor sharp insights on economics which helped me get my start writing in 2008-09. Since then, I’ve followed his writings here and there, of which, never not prolific, Williams never stopped pumping out -- his final article was published yesterday, along with a note from TownHall, once they caught wind of his passing.
“For 40 years,” economist Donald J. Boudreaux wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Walter was the heart and soul of George Mason’s unique Department of Economics. Our department unapologetically resists the trend of teaching economics as if it’s a guide for social engineers. This resistance reflects Walter’s commitment to liberal individualism and his belief that ordinary men and women deserve, as his friend Thomas Sowell puts it, ‘elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’”
Williams’ first book, written in 1982, was an instant classic in our, mostly classically liberal, circle. The State Against Blacks, as Boudreaux describes it, “is an eloquent, data-rich broadside against occupational licensing, taxicab regulations, labor-union privileges and other fine-sounding government measures that inflict disproportionate harm on blacks by restricting the employment options and by driving up the costs of goods and services.”
His autobiography, which he thoughtfully (and, as he admits in the introduction, hesitantly), wrote at the prodding of his wife and family, reveals how he came to such biting insights, having grown up in a very different (for better or worse, though he would probably say better) economic environment than those shaping most kids today:
“I've forgotten just how Mr. Friedman told me I could no longer work for him. I was quite disappointed, but in those days, there were many ways a youngster could earn money. Among my numerous other childhood jobs were: getting up at daybreak and accompanying cousin Carl to caddy at Cobbs Creek Golf Club; taking the farm bus to pick blueberries berries in New Jersey; and working with a huckster peddling fruits and vegetables along the streets of North Philadelphia. As a peddler, I earned a commission based on the baskets sold. Other times my cousin and I would shovel snow from residential and business sidewalks. When worse comes to worst, we would collect bottles and take them to the store to claim the deposit, or collect newspapers, rags, and metal and sell them to a junk shop.
“Later, as a high school student, after school and during summers and on weekends, I worked as a busboy and dishwasher at several of Philadelphia's Horn & Hardart restaurants. Carl and I also delivered mail for the U.S. Postal Service over the Christmas holidays. During two Christmas seasons, I had an after-school and weekend job working at Sears, Roebuck's Roosevelt Boulevard mail-order department packing orders for shipment. In addition, I had an after-school position at a small stockbrokerage, sweeping floors, delivering packages, and performing miscellaneous other chores.”
In short, Williams, also the author of a book called Do the Right Thing, was just as uncompromising about his principles in his life, it appears, as he was -- and so clearly shines through -- in his writings. For that, it’s not just those who knew him firsthand who are better off for it. We all are. Or, at least, those who choose to engage with his works, which will undoubtedly live on long after all of us have passed on, too.
Today, on that note, we feature a (wildly prescient) piece below written by Williams in January of this year, just before, you’ll recall, everything went pear-shaped. (How could you forget?) Let us be reminded that, through thick and thin, strong, timeless principles are what tend to build great people and furnish great lives, not usually the cards we are dealt, and not typically the circumstances within which we find ourselves planted. And, today (and tomorrow, and, perhaps, many days after that), let’s let Walter E. Williams, and his legacy, remind us of that simple, and immortal, fact.
Democracy and Tyranny
By Walter E. Williams
During President Donald J. Trump's impeachment trial, we heard a lot of talk about our rules for governing. One frequent claim is that our nation is a democracy. If we've become a democracy, it would represent a deep betrayal of our founders, who saw democracy as another form of tyranny.
In fact, the word democracy appears nowhere in our nation's two most fundamental documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The founders laid the ground rules for a republic as written in the Constitution's Article IV, Section 4, which guarantees "to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government."
John Adams captured the essence of the difference between a democracy and republic when he said, "You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe."
Contrast the framers' vision of a republic with that of a democracy. In a democracy, the majority rules either directly or through its elected representatives. As in a monarchy, the law is whatever the government determines it to be. Laws do not represent reason. They represent power. The restraint is upon the individual instead of the government. Unlike that envisioned under a republican form of government, rights are seen as privileges and permissions that are granted by government and can be rescinded by government.
Here are a few quotations that demonstrate the contempt that our founders held for a democracy. James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, wrote that in a pure democracy, "there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual."
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Edmund Randolph said that "in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy." Alexander Hamilton agreed, saying: "We are now forming a republican government. (Liberty) is found not in "the extremes of democracy but in moderate governments. ... If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy."
John Adams reminded us: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." John Marshall, the highly respected fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court observed, "Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos." Thomas Paine said, "A Democracy is the vilest form of Government there is."
The framers gave us a Constitution replete with undemocratic mechanisms. One constitutional provision that has come in for recent criticism is the Electoral College. In their wisdom, the framers gave us the Electoral College as a means of deciding presidential elections. That means heavily populated states can't run roughshod over small, less-populated states.
Were we to choose the president and vice president under a popular vote, the outcome of presidential races would always be decided by a few highly populated states, namely California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania, which contain 134.3 million people, or 41% of our population. Presidential candidates could safely ignore the interests of the citizens of Wyoming, Alaska, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Delaware. Why? They have only 5.58 million Americans, or 1.7% of the U.S. population. We would no longer be a government "of the people." Instead, our government would be put in power by and accountable to the leaders and citizens of a few highly populated states. It would be the kind of tyranny the framers feared.
It's Congress that poses the greatest threat to our liberties. The framers' distrust is seen in the negative language of our Bill of Rights such as: Congress "shall not abridge, infringe, deny, disparage, and shall not be violated, nor be denied." When we die and if at our next destination we see anything like a Bill of Rights, we know that we're in hell because a Bill of Rights in heaven would suggest that God couldn't be trusted.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.