RIP Gary Becker

Gary Becker, winner of the Nobel prize for economics in 1992, died on Saturday. There have appeared several obituaries and appreciations. I want to pay tribute to him by linking to three very good ones.

The first was written by Justin Wolfers in the Upshot. Wolfers explains well Becker’s influence on all the social sciences.

The second was written by Steven Levitt in the Freakonomics blog. The remarkable story of how Becker stepped in, unasked, to teach Levitt’s courses for some weeks when Levitt’s son died suddenly, stands out for me.

Finally, Kevin Bryan wrote a good appreciation of Becker’s influence in his blog, A Fine Theorem.

My own take is that, while Becker extended the homo economicus approach forcefully and with a recognition of the limitations that prevent any decision maker from being “perfectly rational”, he relied too much on methodological individualism, which may yet turn out to be the Achilles heel of the entire enterprise of economics. The way I see it, a very big step forward for economics has not yet been taken. This step would keep some aspect of methodological individualism while seriously, and tractably, incorporating the influence that people have on others’ preferences. De gustibus est disputandum. Until I make a contribution of some importance in this direction, however, I must simply tip my virtual hat to Becker’s fertile mind and his prodigious and influential output. If I ever make a contribution, then I will want to acknowledge that it was motivated, partly, by grappling with Becker’s ideas (on this, see the first link above, too).

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