It was billed as a debate on the economics of discrimination. But as soon as I saw that one of the debaters was Prof. Walter Williams, I knew it would be less a debate than an entertainment.

I wasn't disappointed. Williams, who along with Thomas Sowell, has been outraging black America with his conservative economics, went first and spent nearly all of his allotted time questioning the very implication of the debate's title. Discrimination? What discrimination? And even if it exists, what's wrong with it?

"When I married my wife, I discriminated against other women; that is, I didn't give all women equal opportunity. I didn't give white women a chance, Chinese women a chance, fat women a chance, ugly women a chance. Women who didn't bathe regularly, I didn't give them a chance."

Well, if the Temple University professor (now at George Mason) doesn't object to discrimination, perhaps he'll accept that prejudice might not be a good thing.

Don't kid yourself. Prejudice is nothing more than resort to stereotypes, and "stereotypes, many times, turn out to be very useful because they allow us to economize on information. . . . Suppose as you were leaving the Capitol Hill Club [where the debate was held late last month] you saw a great big tiger standing there. What would most of you do? Well, the safe prediction would be that you would leave the area with great dispatch. Is the reason that you would run or seek based on any detailed information about that particular tiger, or are you saying, 'All I need to know is that it is a tiger, and it probably acts like other tigers'?"

Okay, so marriage partners are personal decisions, not societal ones, and your reaction to uncaged tigers is not exactly crucial to the economics of discrimination. Surely the clever professor would have a problem with the sort of prejudice that unfairly damages the life chances of qualified individuals. Well, listen to him:

"Suppose you are an employer and you are looking for an employee you might want to give on-the-job training in physics, and so you want somebody who will probably score maybe 700 or 800 on an SAT test. Now, if it costs you a thousand dollars per potential employee, would you send your recruiters to, let's say, the high schools in Anacostia?" He guessed you wouldn't, and he would find your answers entirely sensible.

And so it went. When Leon Keyserling, the liberal economist, the vice chairman of Truman's Council of Economic Advisers, came to the mike, he was clearly perplexed. "I came here with the idea that a discussion on discrimination would not deal with whether there was discrimination, but with what to do about it; that there would be discussion of the pro and cons of various practical or non-practical approaches to dealing with discrimination."

It never got there, because Williams, who described himself as a product of the ghetto, could never bring himself to admit, even for the sake of argument, that racism is any part of the problem afflicting black America. He did acknowledge that there are unfair and unfortunate disparities in the relative situation of blacks and whites. But these disparities, he insisted, were almost entirely (and I'm not sure I heard the word "almost") the result of governmental programs that have "cut the bottom rungs off the ladder."

As a matter of fact, there could have been an interesting debate on that subject. There is no question that it is harder to start at the bottom than it was in the dayhs when "a poor, illiterate Italian in 1925, if he had industry and ambition, could go out and buy a used car and write the word 'Taxi' on it and be in business, providing upward mobility for his family. . . . Now in New York he'd need $65,000."

Williams might easily have made some converts (among the non-conservatives in the mostly conservative audience gathered by the Heritage Foundation) for his contention that some government policies reduce opportunities for blacks; for example, the regulations of the Interstate Commerce Commission that make it difficult for small newcomers to break into the interstate trucking business. But he lost his chance by refusing to acknowledge that such non-governmental factors a racism were any part of the problem.

Perhaps Williams' best line was the zinger he threw at me. He said I had criticized him and Sowell for thier failure to put forward positive programs to replace the existing ineffectual ones designed to increase black opportunity. He said such policies as minimum wage and licensing requirements constitute an economic cancer.

"If a doctor looks at a patient with cancer, do you say to the doctor, 'Well, after you take the cancer out, what are you going to put in its place?'"

The trouble with the analogy is that is seems to postulate some pre-cancerous state to which black America could return if the government got out of the way.

Unfortunately, to wipe out all governmental efforts on behalf of blacks is to return us to those dear old days of full employment called slavery.