Massive Influence with Scarce Contributions: the rationalizing economist Gary S. Becker

‘‘In Memoriam: Gary S. Becker, 1930–2014’’.20141025_BeckerBoard_sh It is through this lapidary ‘‘Farewell Post’’, announcing that the ‘‘the Becker–Posner blog is terminated’’, that a number of Richard Posner’s followers might have learned the death of his friend and colleague at the University of Chicago, Gary S. Becker. Becker was a major influence in economics, and was awarded in 1992 the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for ‘‘having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behaviour and interaction, including non-market behaviour’’. Posner never missed an opportunity to remind the reader that Becker had exerted the strongest influence on the development law and economics (e.g. Posner 1993). Yet, it is noteworthy to mention that Becker’s direct contributions to the field were scarce: one can (only) think of two papers: the 1968 ‘‘crime and punishment: an economic approach’’ and the 1974 ‘‘law enforcement, malfeasance, and compensation of enforcers’’ (co-authored with George Stigler). This is somewhat illustrative of Becker’s scholarly work throughout his life. Becker’s influence on economics was both direct and indirect. He published numerous seminal contributions on topics that had not really been analyzed with microeconomic tools before him (the economics of the household, human capital, etc.). Yet he was primarily interested in broadening the scope of economics, that is, in invading new and virgin territories to the economist, rather than in focusing exclusively on a particular subfield. Becker’s indirect influence, though, was massive, and was channeled mostly through the work of his students and colleagues, who made those subfields he contributed to create flourish. Becker is remembered by many as both a trailblazer and a mentor who played a fundamental role in supporting early controversial research. By taking a quick glance at his career, where the University of Chicago appears to be a centripetal force, it is easy to see that Becker played on the careers of his colleagues and protégé s a very similar role as his own Chicago mentors—especially Milton Friedman—played on him.

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