Gray Stanley Becker Economist

Gary Stanley Becker: the Economist as Empire-builder

Few contemporary economists have done as much to extend the generality and range of economic theorising as Professor Gary S. Becker of the University of Chicago. With the exception of one or two papers written as a graduate student, all Becker's publi­cations have applied economic reasoning to aspects of human behaviour which have usually been classified as outside the scope of economics, at least since the discipline started to give itself scientific airs in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

These scientific pretensions were associated with the introduc­tion of mathematical techniques from the fields of physics and mechanics, often by professionals trained in those disciplines; many economists then, and not a few since, resented the intrusion of these alien elements. Similarly, Becker's intrepid expeditions into the jealously-guarded territories of sociology, political science, demography, criminology and biology have encountered considerable resistance. While it is too early to forecast the ultimate outcome of these imperialistic excursions, the increasing numbers of economists eager to join Becker in search of plunder have already forced some of the initially-scandalised natives to come to a modus Vivendi with the intruding barbarians. Areas for co-operation rather than conflict are earnestly being sought, as we shall note later.

In this essay, major contributions Becker has made to the study of a range of social phenomena are briefly surveyed. We then discuss and try to evaluate the methodology Becker employs, a methodology he has been increasingly concerned to articulate and refine recently, and which forms the subject matter of several of his publications.

Gary S. Becker Background

Initially, however, it is appropriate to make some observations about our subject's background and training. After under­graduate studies at Princeton, Becker undertook graduate work at the University of Chicago, with which (apart from a short spell at Columbia and a continuing involvement with the National Bureau of Economic Research) he has been associated ever since. This link with Chicago is not of course a purely geographical one. In many ways Becker's thinking is a logical development of the Chicago economics of such figures as Frank Knight, and certainly he has much in common with modern Chicagoans such as Milton Friedman, H. Gregg Lewis, Theodore Schultz and George J. Stigler. Like them he rejects the idea of a macroeconomics divorced from the microeconomics on which the discipline is based, and builds his theoretical structure on the foundations of methodological individualism and market equilibrium. Like Knight and Schultz he insists on the catholicity of the concept of capital; like Friedman he denies the necessity for valid theory to be a literal depiction of reality, so long as it generates useful 'predictions'; like Stigler he emphasizes the role of information and search in the labour market. Like most Chicago economists (though less stridently than some) he is sceptical of the wisdom of governments. Yet Becker's ideas are more than simply a distil­lation of that 'oral tradition' of Chicago economics of which Friedman has written. Becker has taken these ideas further than his contemporaries, and has added new dimensions to their application which give him a genuine claim to fame as a theoretical innovator.