Politics & Policy

Gary Becker (1930–2014)

He transcended the boundaries of economics, applying it to subjects economists don’t usually deal with.

Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker was internationally renowned within the economics profession, but not nearly as well known among the general public as he deserved to be. More important, his path-breaking ideas, including his analysis of the economics of racial discrimination, deserved to be much more a part of the many discussions of that subject.

More than half a century after Professor Becker’s landmark work on the economics of discrimination, most controversies on that subject, both in the media and in politics, go on in utter ignorance of his penetrating insights. So do laws and policies that make discrimination worse.

#ad#As someone who has written about racial discrimination within the framework of analysis that Becker created, I am especially indebted to him, and wish only that more people were aware of that framework, which could spare us much rhetoric and offer some useful understanding instead.

At a time when there are so many occasions to lament that Milton Friedman is no longer with us, when his knowledge and wisdom are needed more than ever, now we must also lament that the same is true of Gary Becker.

While Becker was an economist’s economist, he also transcended the traditional boundaries of economics. He applied the kind of analysis that economists use to subjects that most economists do not usually deal with.

Racial discrimination was just one of those subjects — at least before Becker came along. He also analyzed family decisions within an intellectual framework ordinarily used for analyzing economic issues, though that did not mean that he thought families were all about money.

The title of a book that he co-authored with his wife, Guity Nashat, indicated something of the scope of the subjects Becker’s analysis covered: The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life.

This book was a sign of Professor Becker’s interest in addressing an audience outside of academic economics. He also wrote a column in BusinessWeek magazine.

Despite the contempt that some economists have expressed toward sociology, Gary Becker went from being a professor of economics at Columbia University to being a professor of economics and sociology at the University of Chicago. No doubt sociology was improved by Becker’s contributions.

On a personal note, my path and his crossed a few times at different places. The first time was inauspicious. I was a first-year graduate student at Columbia University and took his year-long course in labor economics.

It was like no other labor-economics course I knew about or had heard about — and there was a reason. He was introducing his own analytical framework, which was destined to change the way many issues would be seen by the economics profession in the years ahead.

The unfamiliarity of what he was saying made me skeptical. So I went to the department chairman to get permission to drop the second semester of this year-long course.

He asked my reason and, never known for diplomatic skills, I said, “I am not learning anything.” That was true in itself, but for reasons the opposite of what I thought at the time. Becker was teaching, and teaching something important, but I just wasn’t on the same wavelength.

That became a continuing source of embarrassment to me over the years, after I belatedly grasped what he was trying to get across. This has been filed with a considerable list of decisions I later regretted in the course of a long life.

The next time I encountered Gary Becker was a decade later, during the defense of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago. He was not on the dissertation committee, but sat in on the discussion and could not have been more gracious.

Later Becker became a part-time senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, where I was also a senior fellow. I could never find the right time or the right way to apologize for my youthful mistake. Now that opportunity is gone. If you owe someone an apology, it is better to do it sooner rather than later.

— Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2014 Creators Syndicate Inc.

Thomas Sowell — Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More