Remembering Gary Becker: A Great Economist

Dr. Gary Becker, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992, died Saturday at the age of 83. I was privileged to be a student of his at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. He is well known for applying a rational approach to human behavior in a variety of contexts not previously considered part of economics. One need not fully agree with Becker’s approach to benefit from reading some of the articles and books he wrote.

Becker is most famous for his work on the theory of human capital and the economics of the family. He is also well known for his work on the economics of crime and punishment, addiction, and discrimination.

His research begins with the premise that all types of human behavior can be understood using rational choice theory. For example, he explained rising divorce rates as a function of the benefits and costs of staying married. According to this theory, rising economic opportunities for women reduced the benefits of staying married relative to the costs. Before Becker published his ideas, academics considered many decisions—such as how many children to have or whether to commit a crime—to be governed largely by habit or emotion rather than rational choice.

Although he earned his reputation in the economics profession by writing technical books and technical journal articles about a fairly narrow range of subjects, later in his life, Becker started writing articles for popular audiences, beginning with a monthly column in Business Week. Since 1985, in addition to his technical writing, he wrote about a wide range of policy issues including Federal Reserve monetary policy, immigration law, trade policy, and the environment. In his articles written for popular audiences, he analyzed public policy issues in more depth than most other writers.

Like his teacher, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker was a supporter of freedom and free markets. One could certainly disagree with him for being too tolerant of some kinds of interventionist government economic policy. Nevertheless, he was often critical of government intervention in the economy, arguing in support of free trade, deregulation, privatization, and against the Affordable Care Act.

Unlike some other professors I had in graduate school, I never recall Becker using offensive language in the classroom or in private conversation. Although he never said anything to indicate that he was a Christian, some of his students did research on the economics of religion; and he appreciated their work and respected their convictions.

I had great respect for Dr. Becker as a teacher and scholar. In the classroom, he would frequently pick a student and call on him to answer a challenging question. The questions he asked often required the student to apply theory in a new way, not just recall something from the reading. His approach was intense and intimidating, but his former students appreciate the way he challenged them.

His passion for applying economics to a wide variety of contemporary issues was contagious. He influenced hundreds of graduate students at the University of Chicago and took a continuing interest in the work of his former students.

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This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom

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