The Left Looks at Gary Becker

Appreciations of the late economist


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

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.


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.