Gary S. Becker was an American economist. He was one of the first individual economists to become interested in and formulate theories on issues surrounding crime, punishment, discrimination, and altruism; his theories often crossed the boundary between economics and sociology (Clement 2002). Although this is a common practice today, when Becker began his work as an economist, the two fields were vastly different; this paper will investigate the overlap between Becker’s work and sociological fields, as well as the major contributions he made to the field of economics.
Gary S. Becker was born in 1930 in Pennsylvania. He worked on a number of different issues that transgressed traditional boundaries in the social and hard sciences. He was one of the first individual economists to become interested in and formulate theories on issues surrounding crime, punishment, discrimination, and altruism; his theories often crossed the boundary between economics and sociology (Clement 2002). Although this is a common practice today, when Becker began his work as an economist, the two fields were vastly different; no one had considered taking into account social issues when discussing economics before Becker joined the scene. Some of Becker’s most famous work involves the economics of the family and of human interactions (Clement 2002). Becker was adamant that much of human society could be considered in terms of economics and economic relationships (Clement 2002).
Before discussing Becker’s contributions to the field of economics, it is also important to consider his personal life and the mentality that he brought into his studies. A political conservative, Becker remained outspoken against most forms of discrimination for much of his life (Clement 2002). He stated that discrimination, particularly of race and gender, did not help the free market; instead, it caused problems for everyone involved in free market economics. He received his Ph.D after writing a thesis on the topic of discrimination, entitled The Economics of Racial Discrimination (Becker 1971). This was considered to be a groundbreaking set of ideas, and ushered in a new type of economics-- one that considered human capital as well as hard capital. He won numerous prizes over the course of his life, including the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Hershey 2014).
Becker’s integration of the human into the previously quite clinical field of economics was one of his biggest contributions as an economist and thinker. Hershey (2014) writes, “One of his early works, ‘The Economics of Discrimination,’ which grew out of his doctoral thesis, attracted little notice when it was first published in 1957, but it won acclaim with the rise of the civil rights movement In the book, Professor Becker asserted that to better understand any form of discrimination, one needs to quantify what people are willing to pay to avoid one another’s company. He concluded that the perpetrator of discrimination is harmed as well as the victim” (Hershey 2014). In the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of pronouncement was met with astonishment in the business world, as many businesses at the time were still highly racist and unwilling to hire people based on race. When Becker suggested that racism hurt both those who were victims of it and those perpetrating it, he found himself in an interesting position: he was a conservative, but much of the very liberal Civil Rights Movement supported his beliefs and what he was doing (Hershey 2014).
Becker employed a similar type of thought in his discussion of family and what became known colloquially as the “rotten kid theorem.” The theory, Becker stated, was that even if family members are inherently selfish, they can be encouraged to act in altruistic ways if their own well-being is tied directly to the well-being of the others within their family unit (Peters 1995). If properly incentivised, Beckers postulated, even a rotten child who enjoys torturing his or her sibling can be encouraged to take pleasure in the well-being of that same sibling-- the payoff for the behavior merely has to outweigh the pleasure that the rotten child takes in hurting the other (Peters 1995). Interestingly, Becker extrapolates this theory and suggests that parents should delay giving their children an inheritance or gifts until they are older, as it encourages good behavior for longer periods of time (Becker 1975).
Becker’s lasting contribution to economics was one of integration between economics and the social sciences, particularly sociology. He had an amazing ability to integrate different ideas from different schools of thought, creating long-lasting theorems that still hold true to a certain extent today. He was a prolific writer and thinker, and contributed much to the collective understanding of the world and its many nuances. Without Becker’s contributions, many current-day economists would not have had the theories necessary to build upon-- this is his lasting legacy, and what he will be known for in the future.
Becker, G. (1971). The economics of discrimination (1st ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Becker, G. (1975). Human capital (1st ed.). New York: National Bureau of Economic Research : distributed by Columbia University Press.
Clement, D. (2002). Interview with Gary Becker. The Region, (Jun), 16--25.
Fuchs, V. (1994). Nobel Laureate: Gary S. Becker: Ideas About Facts. The Journal Of Economic Perspectives, 183--192.
Hershey, Jr., R. (2014). Gary Becker, 83, Nobel Laureate, Dies; Applied Economics to Everyday Life.The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/05/business/economy/gary-s-becker-83-nobel-winner-who-applied-economics-to-everyday-life-dies.html?_r=0
Peters, H. (1995). An Economic Approach to the Study of Child Well-Being Gary Becker on Altruism and Household Production. Journal Of Family Issues, 16(5), 587--608.