The sad news is out this afternoon of the passing, at age 83, of Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize winner in economics in 1992 and long time fixture at the University of Chicago. Becker was every bit the equal of Milton Friedman—Milton would have been the first to say so—and like Milton, he had a gentle manner as he walked questioners through even the most controversial of propositions. Becker should be regarded as the father of “behavioral economics” long before it became popular, writing as early as the 1950s about such topics as, to borrow his titles, The Economics of Discrimination (a book I’ve used in class a few times), The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, and A Treatise on the Family, among others. Indeed, both the Freakonomics guys and fellow Nobel laureate Vernon Smith owe a large intellectual debt to Becker. The blog he co-wrote with the polymathic Richard Posner was must reading for economist geeks.
I had the privilege of meeting Becker only once, at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vancouver in 1992, shortly after he’d won his Nobel Prize. He was in heavy demand, but made time to hold a small meeting in his suite for a handful of younger graduate students (as I still sort of was at the time), and he couldn’t have been more gracious in answering our questions and comments. Tyler Cowan says “Summarizing Becker’s contributions is like trying to summarize economics and it is not really possible,” and offers a useful link to some of Becker’s open access papers that may be of interest.
Here’s one of Becker’s short judgments that has been true—and will continue to be true—for a long time:
“Government should do much less so they can concentrate on and do better with the tasks they are most needed for, such as police and military, infrastructure, safety nets, and regulation of activities with big externalities. Regrettably, I am not optimistic that much can be achieved quickly in slimming down governments, given the strong self-interests and special interests that benefit from the present situation.”