The sad news of economist Walter Williams’ death offers us a chance to revisit a 2007 Carolina Journal Radio interview.


Kokai: Now, based on your work, I’m guessing you believe there’s not a great correlation now between the role the federal government plays today and the role it’s supposed to play.

Williams: You’re absolutely right, that is, it’s a far departure from what the framers of the Constitution envisioned. To give you an idea, James Madison, who was the acknowledged father of the United States Constitution, in Federalist Paper 45, when he was trying to tell the people what the Constitution was about, he said that the powers that we delegated to the federal government are few and well defined and restricted to mostly external affairs. Those left with the people in the states are indefinite and numerous, and so if you turn that upside down, you’d have what we have today — that is, the powers of the federal government are indeed indefinite and numerous, and the states are very, very well-defined and limited.

Kokai: The government has not always played such a large role in American lives. When did government get to be too big?

Williams: If you had to find a benchmark, I think it would have to be during the 1930s. The tragedy of the Great Depression, it gave people the power and the justification to do what they’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and that is to grow the government. And the Supreme Court was fairly good in enforcing the Constitution up until the ‘30s. And then there was that “switch in time that saved nine” — [after] President Roosevelt threatened to pack the court [because] the judges’ 5-4 decisions…were just holding his New Deal legislation unconstitutional — and so I think that can be an important benchmark to the growth of government far beyond that envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.

Kokai: Do the American people understand that government is larger than the Constitution allows it to be?

Williams: If they fully understood it, I wouldn’t have a job, because my job is to try to convince my fellow Americans on the moral superiority of liberty, and its main ingredient is eliminate government.

Kokai: How important is it for us to change course now and move our society back to a situation in which government abides by the proper levels?

Williams: I think it’s vitally important that we reverse the trend. I think one of the things you have to keep in mind is, that if liberty dies in America, I think it will be dead for all times and all places, because America has been the major bulwark for liberty. But I think one thing you have to keep in mind, and that is, the kind of liberty that we know is relatively rare in human history. I think that I’m only too afraid that some historian writing 200 years from now, he’ll say, well, there was this little historical curiosity where people were free, mostly in the western world, among a very, very tiny percentage of man’s population, for only a tiny part of man’s history, from maybe the 18th century until now. But it all went back to the standard state of affairs, namely, arbitrary control and abuse by others, because that’s the main kind of normal affair. And I think we’re heading in that direction.

Kokai: So what are the first steps we need to take if we want to reign in the federal government and force it back into its constitutional boundaries?

Williams: I don’t have a very good answer for that. There is a group of young people that have formed what they call the Free State Project [] and they’re proposing that about 20,000 Americans move to the state of New Hampshire, peaceably take over the legislature, elect their own senators and representatives to the Congress, negotiate with Congress to obey the U.S. Constitution. And if Congress refuses to obey the United States Constitution, some of the members of the Free State Project are suggesting a unilateral declaration of independence. That is, that New Hampshire becomes an independent country.

Kokai: Now, there are some people in this country who are going to say, wait a minute. The Constitution was fine for the late 18th century, but why should be confined now to the ideas of some old white men in powdered wigs and funny pants who’ve been dead for nearly 200 years? What do you say to those people?

Kokai: Well, I think the first thing we should tell them is that the Constitution represents our rules of the game. Now, the framers of the Constitution, in their wisdom, they recognized that things will change, and so they gave us Article V of the Constitution as a means to amend the Constitution. That is, we can amend the Constitution if two-thirds of the Congress, of both Houses, propose an amendment, and four-fifths of the states ratify it. We can amend the Constitution, and that’s the proper way to go, but what we’re doing now is we’re saying, to hell with the Constitution, we’re not going through the arduous task of amending it to do what we want to do now. And I think the reason why is that people recognize that the amendment process is very, very long and very costly, and they would much rather ignore the Constitution than go through the prescribed means to change it.

Kokai: But isn’t the amendment process supposed to be difficult?

Williams: Yes, absolutely. The framers in their wisdom recognized that people have whims, or their emotions of the moment, and they want to make it difficult to change the Constitution. But nonetheless, they did provide a mechanism for doing so.

Kokai: You obviously believe the Constitution is important to our society. Why?

Williams: It represents our rules of the game. And if rules of the game are to mean anything, they must be fixed. It’s like basketball or cards or football. You don’t want the players changing the rules to meet their whim, you know, the referee getting in the game — the referee’s job is to make sure everybody obeys the rules of the game. And that’s what the Supreme Court’s job is, but they’ve been derelict in their duty. They’ve chosen to become part of the game.

Kokai: So are you optimistic at all that the United States can make changes that will put the government back on the right track?

Williams: I’m hoping that the most optimistic thing I can say — I’m hoping that it’s ignorance among many of the American people that explains why they’re not heeding the Constitution. I’d be fearful, and sometimes I think it’s the case, that contempt for the United States Constitution may explain their view. And if the latter is true, then it’s hopeless. But if people are ignorant of the limitations of the Constitution, then there’s hope, because you can educate, you can talk to people, you can convince people, you can cajole.