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.

“The Greatest Century That Ever Was: 25 Miraculous Trends of the Past 100 Years” is the appropriate title of a 1999 article authored by Stephen Moore and the late Julian L. Simon and published by the Washington-based Cato Institute. Let’s highlight some of the phenomenal progress Americans made during the 20th century. During that century, life expectancy rose from 47 to 77 years of age. Deaths from infectious diseases fell from 700 to 50 per 100,000 of the population. Major killer diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, typhoid fever and whooping cough were virtually eliminated. Infant mortality plummeted.

 The 20th century saw unprecedented material gains as well. Controlling for inflation, household assets rose from $6 trillion to $41 trillion between 1945 and 1998. Today, more than 98 percent of American homes have a telephone, electricity and a flush toilet. More than 70 percent of Americans own a car, a VCR, a microwave, air conditioning, cable TV, and a washer and dryer. In 1900, no homes had the modern conveniences of today. Today’s poor Americans have choices that yesterday’s millionaires could have only dreamt of, such as cell phones, computers and color television sets. Added to all this progress, most adults have twice as much leisure time as their turn-of-the-20th-century counterparts.

 You say, “Williams, it would take an idiot to deny the human progress Americans made during the 20th century. What’s your point?” The productive people who made this progress possible are often painted as villains. I’m talking about the innovators and the risk-takers, in a word – entrepreneurs. Today’s heroes are often seen as the people who attack entrepreneurs – among them lawyers, politicians, media people, leftist organizations, college professors and others who often contribute little or nothing to human progress. My colleague, Thomas Sowell, calls the entrepreneurs, scientists and inventors the “doers” and their attackers the “talkers.”

 The talkers who attack the doers are glib and can turn clever phrases and thereby trick the gullible and uninformed, whether it’s the general public through the mass media or judges and juries. For example, even if a particular drug has massive benefits, like saving tens of thousands of lives or reducing the suffering of tens of thousands of people, but a few people suffer or die, the talkers are ready to crucify the company. Their first charge is corporate greed.

 The attack on the pharmaceutical industry is particularly vicious, led by lawyers looking to make a financial killing like their colleagues who sued the tobacco industry and Microsoft. One target of today’s talkers is Merck drug company, the maker of Vioxx, because for some individuals it poses an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. But for other individuals, it is safe and effective for pain relief from arthritis. The operational question for any drug is whether its benefits exceed its costs – not whether some people are harmed. Moreover, some patients would willingly accept the risk of heart attack and stroke to obtain relief from painful, crippling arthritis. Why should the FDA or the plaintiff’s bar prevent them from doing so?

 If we developed the practice of removing products from the market because some people are harmed by them, we might starve to death. Anaphylaxis is a sudden, severe, potentially fatal reaction that some people have to foods such as milk, wheat, soy, peanuts, fish, shellfish and eggs. Each year, food-induced anaphylaxis sends about 30,000 people to hospital emergency rooms and about 200 of them die. Since many people are harmed by these food items, should they be removed from our supermarket shelves? If not, why not? The next time we hear a talker attacking a doer, we just might ask: What have you done to further human progress?