Writing in Higher Education

in Property

As an elderly, former university professor, I am deeply anguished whenever I come across shameful academic writing. Such writing not only exposes the inability of the writer but it exhibits the extent of decline in American university teaching and is a symptom of a decadent civilization.


I recently came across a piece titled Future Prospects for Economic Liberty which was published by Hillsdale College. The piece's author is Walter Williams, the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He writes, "The Founders understood private property as the bulwark of freedom for all Americans, rich and poor alike." Well, perhaps, but not likely. A few founders, some founders, many founders, or all founders? They certainly didn't put any such statement in the Constitution. There is but one instance of the phrase "private property" in the Constitution. It occurs in the Fifth Amendment and reads, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation," which clearly allows the government to take private property. As a matter of fact, the Constitution institutionalizes no economic principles as Justice Holmes, dissenting in Lochner vs the People of the State of New York, recognized when he writes, "a Constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory, whether of paternalism and the organic relation of the citizen to the state or of laissez faire.  It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar, or novel, and even shocking, ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States." And although I assume a few poor people own private property, historically the poor were property less and known as slaves or serfs.


Williams also writes, "the Constitution restricts the federal government to certain functions. What are they? The most fundamental one is the protection of citizens' lives. Therefore, the first legitimate function of the government is to provide for national defense against foreign enemies and for protection against criminals here at home." Well what can one make of this claim? Certainly the Constitution's Preamble lists provide for the common defense as one of the things the Constitution was expected to do, but nowhere in the Constitution is there any reference to "saving lives." Defending the nation against foreign enemies isn't a life saver. People die defending nations. The Constitution also doesn't say anything about protecting citizens against criminals, although it does say, again in the Preamble, insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare. Making specific acts criminal doesn't insure or promote either of these.


Of course, saving lives is a good thing, and if Williams believes that that is a governmental function, he'd better start advocating universal healthcare, safe working environments, higher wages, market regulation, and a host of other programs not enumerated in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. All of these programs, and many others, save lives.


Williams also writes, "the free market system is threatened today not because of its failure, but because of its success. Capitalism has done so well in eliminating the traditional problems of mankind—disease, pestilence, gross hunger, and poverty. . . ." Well, I know of no disease that has been eliminated. Certainly cures for some exist, and some can be controlled, but I defy him to name a single one that has been eliminated. And "gross hunger and poverty" certainly exist in the America I live in. It has recently been reported that one in six Americans live in poverty and that food stamp assistance currently is at an all-time high of about 36 million.


These claims of Mr. Williams certainly are dumb, but he makes even dumber claims. For instance, "if I offer my local grocer three dollars for a gallon of milk, implicit in the offer is that we will both be winners. The grocer is better off because he values the three dollars more than the milk, and I am better off because I value the milk more than the three dollars." Not only is this statement nonsense, it is based on a gross misuse of English diction. Consumers in grocery stores don’t "make offers" to "local grocers." There are places commonly called "farmers markets" where that kind of offer may take place, but not in any grocery stores in the communities I have lived in for more than seventy years. The local grocery stores are massive corporations. How could any consumer make them an offer for a gallon of milk? The managers of these local grocery stores are often even hard to find. How would a checkout clerk respond to an offer to pay so-and-so for a gallon of milk?


But the dumbest claim is this: "Another common argument is that we need big government to protect the little guy from corporate giants. But a corporation can't pick a consumer's pocket. The consumer must voluntarily pay money for the corporation's product." In a sense, but what if the consumer has no alternative? And what about products that don't work as advertised? That's certainly a way of picking a consumer's pocket. Our local Fox television station regularly runs a feature called "deal or dud" during which it tests highly advertised products. I presume that Mr. Williams would be shocked to learn that most are duds. Corporations certainly use such products to pick consumers' pockets.


Mr. Williams is a shameful example of a university professor who has adopted an ideology, parrots it, and has never had an original thought of his own. His references to the Constitution are asinine and his reasoning ability is far weaker than sophomoric. What's worse, however, are the two institutions mentioned above—Hillsdale College and George Mason University and others like them. They can be likened to Mideastern madrasses—pure purveyors of ideology. These institutions have abandoned the classical educational ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty for belief, greed, and exploitation. And not only Americans but the whole world is paying a horrid price for it.


©2009 John Kozy

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John Kozy has 1 articles online

Retired professor of philosophy and logic who blogs on social, political, and economic issues. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he spent 20 years as a university professor and another 20 years working as a writer for various private companies. He’s an active blogger. His pieces can be found on http://www.jkozy.com/

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Writing in Higher Education

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This article was published on 2010/03/05