By Walter Williams
How many times have we applauded those who “made a difference in the lives of others” and been admonished to do the same? On the face of it, that has to be one of the more mindless generalities of our modern era.
After all, didn’t Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Castro also make a difference in the lives of others?
A prominent politician once told me that it’s up to Congress to save jobs. That’s a sentiment with enormous appeal today, reflected in tariffs, quotas and other economic restrictions. Taken literally, saving jobs means lower wealth, and I’m against it. Let’s think about it.
In 1776, farmers made up 90 percent of the labor force; today, farmers are about 2 percent. That’s a lot of jobs lost. What should an earlier Congress have done to save those jobs? In my youth, icemen and milkmen delivered their wares in horse-drawn wagons. Those jobs have been lost, along with the jobs of stable keepers and wagon repairmen. Was it the responsibility of Congress to save those jobs?
The destruction of jobs through natural market forces is, for example, a wonderful thing; it frees up labor resources to do other things, although a hardship on those displaced. After all, if 90, 60, or 30 percent of our labor force were farming, where in the world would we get workers to produce cars, computers, roads and ships? Many parents tell their children that anything worth doing is worth doing as well as possible. That’s nonsense. I never tell my economic students they ought to try to get the best grade they can in my class. Why? Spending the resources to earn an A in economics means that those same resources can’t be spent for other classes.
For example, spending the time to earn an A in my class might mean a C in biology, a D in math and an F in chemistry. That translates into a grade point average of 1.75. If by spending less time learning economics, maybe earning a C, and spending more time on other classes so as to earn a C in each of them, the student would have a higher grade point average.
What about statements like this: “It’s advantageous to have reporters on the ground,” or, we should “connect policy to people on the ground in developing countries.” I sometimes wonder whether there’s the alternative of, say, connecting policy to people in the air in developing countries. I personally grow weary of one reference or another, usually made by a reporter or politician, to people, equipment, food, this or that “on the ground.”
I have generous office hours for students, but not every hour in my office is open to students. Quite often during non-office hours, a student or colleague will knock on my door. When I open it, they’ll often ask, “May I disturb you?” That’s an incredible question to which I frequently reply, mostly in a civil fashion, “You’ve already disturbed me; now what do you want?”
Dr. Martin Rosenberg, my high school English teacher, having had it with my classroom antics whilst he drilled us in English grammar, told me, “Williams, teaching you this material is like casting pearls before the swine.” That was in 1952 before everyone became concerned about self-esteem, but it was precisely the kind of dressing down that I needed to challenge me and turn my high school academic performance around. Two years later, it was Dr. Rosenberg who proudly coached me with my salutatorian address for our graduation ceremony. I thank God that I received my education before educators and psycho-babblers became concerned about self-esteem; I’m also thankful for having received it before it became fashionable for white people to like black people. It meant my grades were honest.