HILL: Running into Walter Williams in the airport

Travelers walk through Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Walter Williams had a lot of wisdom. I certainly learned a lot from him over the years.

I got my first paycheck for a real job in the summer of 1978 after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill. To my horror and abject surprise, when I opened the envelope, 33% of it had vanished due to state and federal tax withholding, some strange thing called “FICA” and other various deductions.

That was the moment I decided to get into politics. I wanted to find out where 33% of my paycheck was going every other week and see if it was worth it.

The chairman of the Durham City Council lived across the street, so I asked if I could attend a Democratic precinct meeting at his house the next Tuesday night. Durham being Durham meant you had to get involved with the Democratic Party to get anything done.

When I raised my hand to ask a question on three successive motions, the chairman rebuffed me each time and closed discussion by deeming each motion passed by “unanimous vote.” Since I was definitely not in unanimous agreement, I went to the board of elections first thing the next morning to register as a Republican.

I formed a Young Republican group in Durham. I think we had six members. We could hold our meetings in a phone booth, almost literally.

Later that fall, I happened to see Walter Williams waiting for a plane in an airport. He was a tall slender man with big hands and a warm smile. We talked about the current economic turmoil under then-President Jimmy Carter, which ultimately led to 12% annual inflation and 21% interest rates by the day he left office on Jan. 20, 1981.

All I really knew about him was he was one of only two African-American scholars, Thomas Sowell being another, who wrote about the American free enterprise system in a positive manner. Dr. Williams wrote about racial issues, but from the perspective of how the underlying ideals supporting free enterprise could raise everyone up — regardless of race, religion or background — in such an engaging manner that I thought he would be a good guest to invite to speak our group in Durham.

He said he would come any time we invited him. All he needed was a $1,000 honorarium and travel expenses, and he would get on a plane from Northern Virginia as soon as possible.

“But Dr. Williams, we only have 6 members. We can’t possibly find $1,000 [$3,500 in 2020 dollars] to pay your travel expenses. We just graduated from college!” I somewhat plaintively explained. “Plus the government is taking 33% of every paycheck we get!”

He leaned over me, smiled again and said: “Well, welcome to the real world then. You want me to come share my ideas; I think that is worth $1,000 plus expenses. If you come up with it, let me know and I will be there.”

Without a flourishing free enterprise system, we will cease being Americans in spirit and in fact.

He shook my hand and left to get on his flight, presumably to some other place where someone could pay him $1,000 plus expenses.

He was not condescending or demeaning in any way. He proposed a fundamental transaction that is at the core of a free market; if we wanted him to do something for us, we had to pay him $1000 plus expenses. He wasn’t going to give his services away for free. The government was not going to pay for him to come speak to our group in Durham, nor should it.

In virtually everything he wrote about over his long and distinguished career, Walter Williams explained the essence of what a free enterprise system in a democratic republic should look like — voluntary, mutually-agreed-upon transactions where both parties get what they want from each other. Walter Williams wrote about capitalism and freedom in ways that made him one of the most eloquent expositors of the free market ever in American history.

Being a black man made him unique in the world of conservatism in the 1980s. His beliefs on political philosophy and economic theory, however, transcended racial, religious and socio-economic differences.

He talked about what essentially should unite us all as Americans: freedom. Without a flourishing free enterprise system, we will cease being Americans in spirit and in fact.

Walter Williams once said: “Let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well then tell me how much of what I earn belongs to you — and why?”

He will be missed.