Economics

The Left Looks at Gary Becker

Appreciations of the late economist

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There's little love on the left for Gary Becker, the Chicago School economist who died this past weekend. But there is a longstanding left-wing fascination with his work, going back at least as far as Foucault's engagement with his ideas in 1979, and that has manifested itself in some respectful (though certainly critical) tributes. Here, for example, are some of Kathleen Geier's comments in The Washington Monthly:

Gary Becker
C-Span

Clearly, this a great deal in Becker's legacy to be deeply disturbed about. But there is also something about Becker's approach I find bracing. A lot of people are greatly offended by the implicit suggestion in Becker's work that decisions like marrying, or having children, are economic transactions like any other—no different than buying a car or a pair of shoes. And of course those are entirely different categories of decisions—in one sense.

But marital relationships, parent-child relationships, decisions to marry and divorce, etc., are also profoundly economic acts. That can sometimes be hard to see, given the sentimental notions about family life that are so prevalent in American society. But Becker blasted through the Victorian detritus of all that bourgeois romantic ideology to analyze the ways in which marital and reproductive behaviors are fundamentally rooted in a utilitarian economic calculus. You could appreciate his general approach without necessarily buying into the details of his argument. That was a real contribution, and even a radical one, after a fashion.

R.I.P.

Needless to say, the free-market community has been overflowing with Becker appreciations too. For a sampling, see Russ Roberts' reminiscences here, Peter Lewin's Austrian perspective here, and Tyler Cowen's list of underappreciated Becker papers here.

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10 responses to “The Left Looks at Gary Becker

  1. A lot of people are greatly offended by the implicit suggestion in Becker’s work that decisions like marrying, or having children, are economic transactions like any other?no different than buying a car or a pair of shoes. And of course those are entirely different categories of decisions?in one sense.

    It’s only offensive if you take an extremely limited definition of “transaction.”

    1. Another too narrowly defined word is ‘Profit”. There are lots things that people do in this world that profit them without them getting a dime.

      One group is the do-gooders who want to force you to comply with their ideas, they profit from the warm feeling they get in forcing you to follow their wishes.

  2. “A lot of people are greatly offended by the implicit suggestion in Becker’s work that decisions like marrying, or having children, are economic transactions like any other”

    They are modeled like all other decisions – as exercises in Utility maximization, not Wealth maximization. The insight that these decisions can be studied via micro-based economic models shouldn’t be that difficult for Progressives to grasp, given ther preference for reducing all social problems to a question of whose wealth should be forcibly transferred to whom.

    1. The insight that these decisions can be studied via micro-based economic models shouldn’t be that difficult for Progressives to grasp

      I can’t think of any basic economic concept that progressives actually demonstrate even the slightest understanding of.

      1. “When the government spends your money, the economy grows, because Keynes.”

        Usually accompanied by a claim that failing to agree with this fundamental truth marks you as ignorant white trash.

  3. The left should have adored Becker, after all, to Marx all of life was expressed in material terms. I suppose that since he based his work on utility theory (intellectual cul-de-sac that it is) was too much of a heresy.

  4. Even medical care is an economic good!
    But don’t tell anyone.

  5. Oh… Gary Becker passed? That’s very unfortunate. He did good work.

    1. He did God’s work in some of the toughest neighborhoods in America!

      /ACORN

    2. Yeah. Bummer.

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