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 Gary Becker 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.

Gary Becker was a member of the committee that evaluated my dissertation to determine whether it was good enough for me to be awarded a doctorate. It was he who critiqued what I had hoped was my final draft and told me I needed to do additional research before it would be acceptable. Though I doubted whether I could do what he asked me to do, nine months later, I completed another draft that he approved. I am grateful that he applied his rigorous standards to my work.

Becker’s passion for applying economics to public policy continued until the end of his life. One of the ways he remained active as a scholar and public intellectual was in creating and a writing a blog with Richard Posner. He started blogging in 2002 and his last two entries into the Becker-Posner blog were written in March of this year. In these he argued in favor of legalizing marijuana and ending the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.

Along with many other students of his, I will miss my mentor and teacher, Gary Becker.