Walter’s weak argument

George Mason University economist and syndicated columnist Walter Williams spoke to the Fund’s students last Thursday night. His topic, “The role of government in a free society.” His answer, “Extremely limited.”

Which is the right answer, of course, but his argumentation was a little less than stellar. While Williams made his points in a humorous and engaging fashion, explaining how greed — when placed in a market context — can create good, a surprising amount of his discussion centered on moral rather than economic or utilitarian arguments. Kind of odd, seeing as how he’s an economist and all.

Early on in his talk, he argued that any government transfer is necessarily theft and therefore morally wrong. So I guess that’s the end of the discussion, right? Why bother with all of the evidence for how markets make us better off? Of course he went on, sliding right over how and why he would distinguish between the justified force required to provide a national defense, courts and police (all of which he said were kosher) and the unjustified force involved in creating and maintaining the welfare state. From his argument (or lack thereof), one might think him an anarchist.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being an anarchist, though I’m not, and though I know Williams is not. The problem was with stating this blanket moral proposition and not backing it up or bothering to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of government. It really diminished Williams’ persuasiveness and made it seem like his answer to any possible government intervention was, “No!”

Now, the libertarian answer to almost any government intervention that gets discussed is “No!”, but without giving the audience a sense of how and where he (and, consequently, a libertarian) would draw the line, it made the libertarian or free-market view seem more like dogma than a well-considered, empirically and morally sound worldview.