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


Born in Philadelphia in 1936, Walter E. Williams holds a bachelor's degree in economics from California State University (1965) and a Master's degree (1967) and doctorate (1972) in economics from the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1980, he joined the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and is currently the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics. More than 150 of his publications have appeared in scholarly journals such as Economic Inquiry, American Economic Review and Social Science Quarterly and popular publications such as Reader's Digest, The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. He has made many TV and radio appearances on such programs as Milton Friedman's Free to Choose, William F. Buckley's Firing Line, Face The Nation, Nightline and Crossfire, and is an occasional substitute host for The Rush Limbaugh Show. He is also the author of several books. Among these are The State Against Blacks, later made into a television documentary, America: A Minority Viewpoint, All It Takes Is Guts, South Africa's War Against Capitalism, More Liberty Means Less Government, Liberty Versus The Tyranny of Socialism, and recently his autobiography, Up From The Projects.

  • GW

    Mr. Williams,

    Congratulations on a very well-constructed, well thought-out, and completely useless essay. You’ve made a fine living over the years by pointing at others and explaining how bad they are. Now go cash your checks while your representatives in Washington govern by compromise.

  • Cord Hamrick


    Oddly, for a post with such strong wording, I really am not sure what idea you intended to communicate.

    Are you saying Williams is correct, but that the folk who ought to pay attention to his essay won’t (and thus it’s useless)? Or are you saying it’s useless because he’s incorrect?

    Are you saying that it’s a good thing that representatives in D.C. (his, yours, mine) “govern by compromise” or a bad thing?

    And as for “pointing at others and explaining how bad they are”, well, any relaying of factual information which is not universally held will put those unwilling to accept it in a bad light. Do you hold that this is an unintended side-effect of Dr. Williams’ relaying of information? Or that he’s intentionally getting his jollies about making people who ought to know better, but don’t, look bad?

  • Francis Wippel

    Without categorically agreeing with everything written in Dr. Williams’ article, I think his points are well made and valid, and I’d like to thank Crisis for publishing this.

    Bashing the wealthy as being selfish and greedy has become the highest sacrament in the religion of political correctness. On the other hand, expecting anyone who receives public assistance to take steps towards achieving self-reliance is deemed a capital offense.

    Obviously those who are well off have an obligation before God to assist the less fortunate; our Catholic faith is very clear on this matter. However, there is seldom (if ever) any mention of the obligation all of us, regardless of social or financial standing, have before God to make the most of the gifts He has given us. We rarely hear the Parable of the Talents referenced in terms of what God expects from each of us when discussing economics within the realm of our Catholic faith.

    Unfortunately, we have government leaders who are far more interested in giving money away to those who will help keep them in office than in promoting the idea of self-reliance. There are far too many people on public assistance in our nation who are capable of supporting themselves and have chosen not to do so. It may be controversial to call attention to this, but it needs to be done.

  • Rich Browner

    This piece is over simplified. It paints a caricature of liberals and seems is only here to serve a need in some who might want to bash on that shared limited view of whatever a “liberal” is.

    That’s fine.

    There are just as many unfortunate postings raving about guncrazy, war crazy money crazy prolife “conservatives” that I can disregard as simple minded and lacking in nuance.

    • Phil Steinacker


      If Prof. Williams piece seems oversimplified perhaps it’s because your worldview is over-simplified – or perhaps merely simplistic.

      Walter Williams has been dismantling liberalism for decades with great effect, as anyone well-read sufficiently to be familiar with his considerable body of work will attest.

      Your complaint that his post is simple-minded and lacking in nuance is rooted in your over-estimation of the inherent value of liberalism from go. It’s long been observed that nuance is an obsession by liberals simply because it provides cover for those so open-minded they become confused from juggling too many competing ideas. This is the disease of those with no enduring principles.

      In this case, if his deconstruction of liberalism seems too simplisitic it’s because he defines exactly the paucity of substance in liberal premises. Understandably, this upsets you but your obvious inability to say anything of substance betrays you. There can be no nuance when you lack substance.

      You’ve got no game, son. That’s why your criticism of Williams is actually the post that lacks substance – not his. When you lefty trolls go up against your betters. real men like this professor will run circles around you each and every time. I hope you never have to face him straight on.

      • Rich Browner

        Phil, you must be in some need to win an argument.

        My statement stands easily on it’s own.

    • Cord Hamrick


      I agree that Walter Williams’ piece comes across as simplistic in places.

      Oddly enough, though, it has a particular kind of forced simplicity to it. It reads very much like he wrote a longer piece which was more detailed and included caveats and nuances and a good deal more authorial personality…and came out 2,000 words too long and had to be cut down to fit a space-limit for a newspaper or magazine. It reads like it was cut down with a chainsaw, leaving little piles of nuance and slivers of detail and chunks of personal style lying on the cutting room floor.

      (I have some experience with this. If brevity is the soul of wit, I tend toward utter witlessness. As a result, when on previous occasions I wrote for InsideCatholic/Crisis Magazine, the good folk took a weed-eater to my verbosity. I needed it done…but afterward I always struggled to dispel a lingering sense of, “but the way I said it first is so much more precisely what I meant!”)

      All of this is to say: I think Williams himself has a more sophisticated view; he’s an intelligent man and knows perfectly well that liberals aren’t uniformly caricaturish. But the piece reads like one brutally trimmed for length at the expense of such precision.

      P.S. However, caricatures are recognizable precisely because there’s some truth in them.

      I have debated with left-leaning folk who say they know the economy isn’t a zero-sum game, or that economies are too complex to be successfully managed by central planning…but the moment you examine the underlying principles in their arguments, you find those arguments only work when one assumes…a zero-sum game and an economy simple enough to be comprehended by planners!

  • Sam Schmitt


    Mr. Williams is simply pointing out that most liberals hold to two basic premises: that (1) there is a definite amount of wealth out there and (2) it should be distributed “fairly.” Moreover, there is the “zero-sum” assumption – that any money you have is money that I don’t have.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have heard comments from liberal where these are the unspoken premises – the rich have too much money and so it must be taken from them and given to the poor as a simple matter of “fairness”; this is one of the basic (if not the most basic) duties of the government.

    Oddly enough, there is little or no mention of money as something people “earn” – whether it be by the rich or the poor. Also missing from the conversation is any notion that people may help other people without coercion – through charity, etc. It ‘s all about the enforcement of a pre-determined notion of fairness.

  • Rayne Aande

    This is a rather childish view of money and economics (as simply a reward). The economy IS a closed system, otherwise foreign exhange wouldn’t work. Further, the amount you earn doesn’t reflect the amount of work you do by any means. I’ve worked superfluous jobs where I was paid inordinate amounts to sit around, and I’ve worked my fingers to the bone for peanuts.

    Microsoft (at least) is also a horrible example as they were found guilty of a monopoly.

    • Cord Hamrick


      Were you replying to Walter Williams, or to Sam Schmitt, or someone else?

      I’m not sure I follow your statement that the economy is a closed system because “otherwise foreign exchange wouldn’t work.” I can’t figure out how that refutes what Walter Williams said.

      And in what way do you mean that “the economy is a closed system?” (Surely you don’t mean that value is never created afresh in the economy, that only the value that’s been there for thousands of years is traded about!)

      Also, it’s quite true that one can work more hours, or do more excellent work, or more grueling work, while getting paid less for it than for an easy or bad bit of labor. This is agreed by all parties, not least by Walter Williams.

      Sorry if this seems like nitpicking! It’s just that…well, I’d like to reply to your post, but I’m not confident I understand your point, or with whom you are disagreeing, and why. Perhaps you could clarify a bit?