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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
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Understanding Liberals


The liberal vision of government is easily understood and makes perfect sense if one acknowledges their misunderstanding and implied assumptions about the sources of income. Their vision helps explain the language they use and policies they support, such as income redistribution and calls for the rich to give something back.

Suppose the true source of income was a gigantic pile of money meant to be shared equally amongst Americans. The reason some people have more money than others is because they got to the pile first and greedily took an unfair share. That being the case, justice requires that the rich give something back, and if they won't do so voluntarily, Congress should confiscate their ill-gotten gains and return them to their rightful owners.

A competing liberal implied assumption about the sources of income is that income is distributed, as in distribution of income. There might be a dealer of dollars. The reason why some people have more dollars than others is because the dollar dealer is a racist, a sexist, a multinationalist or a conservative. The only right thing to do, for those to whom the dollar dealer unfairly dealt too many dollars, is to give back their ill-gotten gains. If they refuse to do so, then it's the job of Congress to use their agents at the IRS to confiscate their ill-gotten gains and return them to their rightful owners. In a word, there must be a re-dealing of the dollars or what some people call income redistribution.

The sane among us recognize that in a free society, income is neither taken nor distributed; for the most part, it is earned. Income is earned by pleasing one's fellow man. The greater one's ability to please his fellow man, the greater is his claim on what his fellow man produces. Those claims are represented by the number of dollars received from his fellow man.

Say I mow your lawn.

For doing so, you pay me $20. I go to my grocer and demand, "Give me 2 pounds of steak and a six-pack of beer that my fellow man produced." In effect, the grocer asks, "Williams, you're asking your fellow man to serve you. Did you serve him?" I reply, "Yes." The grocer says, "Prove it."

That's when I pull out the $20 I earned from serving my fellow man. We can think of that $20 as "certificates of performance." They stand as proof that I served my fellow man. It would be no different if I were an orthopedic doctor, with a large clientele, earning $500,000 per year by serving my fellow man. By the way, having mowed my fellow man's lawn or set his fractured fibula, what else do I owe him or anyone else? What's the case for being forced to give anything back? If one wishes to be charitable, that's an entirely different matter.

Contrast the morality of having to serve one's fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces with congressional handouts. In effect, Congress says, "You don't have to serve your fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces. We'll take what he produces and give it to you. Just vote for me."

Who should give back? Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart, Bill Gates founded Microsoft, Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer. Which one of these billionaires acquired their wealth by coercing us to purchase their product? Which has taken the property of anyone?

Each of these examples, and thousands more, is a person who served his fellow men by producing products and services that made life easier. What else do they owe? They've already given.

If anyone is obliged to give something back, they are the thieves and recipients of legalized theft, namely people who've used Congress, including America's corporate welfare queens, to live at the expense of others. When a nation vilifies the productive and makes mascots of the unproductive, it doesn't bode well for its future.

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 Web page at



7 Comments | Post Comment
Walter, you said "Suppose the true source of income was a gigantic pile of money meant to be shared equally amongst Americans.". The true sources of income are Capital, Labor, and Natural Resources. (where capital is an accumulation of wealth generated from labor and natural resources). In the America that I live in there are natural resources that ARE meant to be shared equally - we all have the right to breathe the same air (and to regulate - or charge for polluting our air), and we have a shared interest in aquifers, rivers, and quite a bit of public land.
You said "The reason some people have more money than others is because they got to the pile first and greedily took an unfair share." Oh how silly that sounds. But there is a grain of truth to the idea that some people got to our natural resources first and greedily took an unfair share.
Don't misunderstand - private property is critically important for our economy and our well being. Your land is your land. And my land is mine - sort of. I can't dump toxic chemicals on my land, and here in New Hampshire I've got to pay property taxes that partially depend on how I'm using my land.
The point is that when it comes to natural resources, there really is some joint ownership. It's not totally inappropriate to call it the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or the Commonwealth of Virginia. It seems to me that as Citizens it makes sense for us to realize some gains from that joint ownership (besides not having to choke on the air we breathe).
When it comes to what people have worked for, what we've given, and what we "owe", you are mostly right. It is idiotic to tax people for being producers. But consumption taxes and some property taxes do make sense.
Comment: #1
Posted by: rainbear
Tue May 17, 2011 4:04 AM
This is a well written, insightful article by an African-American academic at George Mason University. It does point up the underlying philosophical and economic analysis difference between basic Republican and Democratic attempts at governing. When we throw names and slogans to win votes, we assume a basic ignorance by the voter and count upon them voting their personal interests through the filters of their fears and beliefs. Perhaps THE CORLESS can bring some clarity and show that a "balance" that can be derived from a spiritual understanding of existence might guide in a better way, the path toward peace and harmony, as well as, personal happiness.
Comment: #2
Posted by: David
Tue May 17, 2011 11:34 AM
This sounds all well and good in theory, when a capatalist society is working. But what about those gains made, not by 'serving my fellow man,' but instead by ripping him off? Sorry, but those liberals who want gains returned aren't worried about those gains earned by hard work, smarts, or even greed. They are outraged by those gains made ILLEGALLY, through market manipulation, through monopolistic practices that destroy competitive markets, and through outright theft, either through illegal accounting, oversight or other fiscal improprieties. That is what liberals are angry about - an economy that stifles innovation in order to maintain fiscal behemoths (hello oil subsidies, goodbye green energy). Liberals aren't resentful of a competitive, capatalist free market system, but by a broken, subsidized, illegally manipulated economy that keeps more than 90% of this country's wealth in the hands of around 2% of its population... sorry, but surely a free market in a free society would produce a more regular bell curve than that.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Mel Maryland
Tue May 17, 2011 11:37 AM
One of the liberal phrases that drives me completely nuts is that the poor just want "their fair share of the pie". Anyone who uses that phrase has a fundamental misunderstanding of economics. If they think there's some similarity between money and pie, ask them how much they'd like to have some used pie or a hot fresh dollar bill you just printed up for them. If they rightfully decline on both counts, how about a dollar that's been circulating for a decade and some pie you just made.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Joe Patterson
Wed May 18, 2011 8:13 AM
Re: Mel Maryland
You say "Liberals aren't resentful of a competitive, capatalist free market system"
While I believe that there do exist people who call themselves liberals and fit that description, there are many who do not.
Much of what you say I suspect both Dr. Williams and I would agree with, but let me pinpoint the difference: You say you're opposed to "a broken, subsidized, illegally manipulated economy", while Dr. Williams and I are opposed to a broken, subsidized, *legally* manipulated economy. Dr. Williams has pointed out on many occasions that if you look closely at any harmful monopoly, you're likely to find it being protected by government intervention.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Joe Patterson
Wed May 18, 2011 8:23 AM
I certainly understand you appreciating the services given ( or sold) to America by the Exxons & Standard Oils of the world. I assume that is why you want the government to take money and health care away from the old and infirm and give it to the millionaires & billionaires of the world.
Comment: #6
Posted by: HKCHAS
Fri May 20, 2011 10:16 AM
Re: Mel Maryland Show the Bell Curve. Thinking that a different curve "should" be produced and reality are two different things.
Comment: #7
Posted by: David Henricks
Fri May 20, 2011 6:06 PM
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