Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Mason Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

Here’s a question prompted by my recent re-reading of Leonard Read’s The Myth of the See-It-All, in “The Coming Aristocracy” (1969). Incidentally, Read founded the New York-based Foundation for Economic Education ( in the 1940s, America’s first free-market think tank.

But here’s the question: Suppose you were alive in 1869 and were asked, “Which would you consider is the easier method to deliver a message across your state – by mail or by human voice?” Your response to this seemingly idiotic question would have been, “By mail!” Moreover, you probably would have argued mail would always be easier because it would have been impossible for you to conceive that sometime in the future there’d be telephones and other forms of electronic communication.

Suppose you had been asked in the 1940s, when computers were first being built, “To what uses can we put these machines?” I doubt whether you could have come up with much more than saying, “They can be used to rapidly make numerical calculations.” It would have been impossible even for great thinkers such as Albert Einstein to foresee the myriad uses and benefits of computers in 2001.

You say, “OK, Williams, what’s the point?” One point is mankind’s total knowledge of all that can be known is trivial. Another is some people act as if they know it all and, in their roles as politicians and bureaucrats, they forcibly impose what they see as their “superior wisdom” on others. These barbarians have forgotten Richard Whatley’s warning, “He who is not aware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.” Not only will these people mislead themselves, if they have power they’ll mislead a nation.

There’s no better example of elite ignorance and arrogance than in the debate over education. There’s no question that the American education system is in shambles. In our inner cities, education is nothing short of a criminal disgrace. But what do members of the elite do? They oppose every effort to introduce alternatives to the public-education system that might come through educational vouchers or tuition tax credits. Their position differs little from one that says: We know every possible means of delivering education, and today’s public-education system is the best. Having taken that position, they virtually contradict themselves by arguing that if parents had choice, public schools wouldn’t survive. In other words, public schools are so rotten that if parents had another option, they’d exercise it.

Another know-it-all argument these people make is: If we had educational vouchers there wouldn’t be enough private schools to enroll all those who’d apply. Such a claim reflects gross economic ignorance.

Apply that claim to VCRs and cars. Back when VCRs were invented, would any reasonable person have proposed holding up their production and sales until enough VCR rental and repair shops had been established? Should Henry Ford have waited for gasoline stations and auto-repair shops to be established across the country before he started mass producing cars?

To these questions, I’m betting that you’re going to say: “That’s nonsense, Williams. Let VCRs be manufactured, and I’ll guarantee you there’ll soon be VCR rental and repair shops. And let Ford produce cars, and I’ll also guarantee you that soon there’ll be gasoline stations and repair shops.” Why? People want to make money, and the best way of making money is by pleasing others. The identical reasoning applies to education. Give parents vouchers, and you can bet private schools will emerge.

The bottom line: Always be suspicious of those who pretend to know it all, claim their way is the best way and are willing to force their way on the rest of us.