By Kindred Winecoff
Becker was a bogeyman for many who reflexively dislike “neoliberalism”, public choice economics, or markets more generally. In the minds of some he is further tarnished by his association with University of Chicago economics.
But Becker was undeniably brilliant, and his influence was very far-reaching. His primary contribution, as he explained in his 1992 Nobel lecture, was to conceive of economics as a way of thinking, thus extending moving economics past the study of industrial organization and value calculations into other aspects of society. What this meant for Becker is that behavioral incentives exist in all social settings, so the basic logic of cost/benefit analysis is useful generally. Others thought this intellectual project was less benign; when you hear people complain about the “moral limits” of markets or the need to disassociate economic logics from social interactions you are hearing an attack on Becker.
Typically these attacks miss Becker’s central insights or underestimate their quality. This point was made powerfully by Michel Foucault, of all people, as he explained in The Birth of Biopolitics lectures. Some years later Becker thoughtfully responded. Sometimes Becker did display reductionist tendencies that were severe enough to view his conclusions with some skepticism, but even then his insights were useful and the power of his logic is clear. (When reading him it is worth asking just how often ceteris really is paribus.)
I find Becker’s vision of human capital to be not only persuasive in a basic sense but also empowering. If it penetrated social consciousness more I believe a wide range of social outcomes would improve. It is relevant for current discussions of economic inequality and the usefulness of conceptualizing labor as a class in a modern economy.
Here is Becker on Google Scholar and also his profile page. His H-Index is an astounding 80. Tyler Cowen picks some of his favorite Becker deep cuts. I’ve always liked his “Crime and Punishment”, which is relevant to the argument Graham and I are having over social approbation and Donald Sterling.