Gary S. Becker, R.I.P.

I first met Professor Gary Becker (1930-2014) about 15 years ago, when he came to Oxford, Miss., to present a public lecture at the University of Mississippi sponsored by the Robert M. Hearin Foundation. My coauthor and then-colleague Bob Tollison and I breakfasted with him early on the morning of Dr. Becker’s visit, after he had flown in on a red-eye from Chicago the night before, arriving at a local bed-and-breakfast at about 2 a.m.

It turned out that Dr. Becker’s travel schedule was dictated by his teaching responsibilities at the University of Chicago because, as he told us, he never missed a class. Nevertheless, despite having had no more than four hours of sleep, Dr. Becker was in fine intellectual form, providing Bob and me with a rare opportunity to talk economics with a Nobel laureate.

At the time of our meeting, as news reports have indicated, Dr. Becker had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he brought along some green tea leaves to be brewed for his breakfast drink. The news reports also say that he eventually “beat” that disease.

But now we hear that Prof. Becker passed away over the weekend from “complications after surgery,” presumably for the ulcers from which he lately suffered.

What a loss to the economics profession and to the students he cared so much about!

Professor Becker (I cannot bring myself to call him “Gary”) was, despite the recent notoriety of Steve Levitt, the original “freakonomist.” He expanded the domain of the economics discipline to areas traditionally the province only of sociologists, including marriage and the family, crime and punishment, and racial discrimination.

He will, perhaps, be best remembered for the contribution he made in his doctoral dissertation (“The Economics of Discrimination”), later published in book form, which supplied theory and evidence pointing to the conclusion that free-market institutions are the best (most efficient) solution to employers’ indulgence of preferences for whites, men, or “straights” because discrimination carries costs that compromise profitability. But he should also be remembered for an important paper he published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics on the influences of pressure (special-interest) groups on politics.

Incidentally, the Independent Institute was privileged to hold an event with Dr. Becker and his wife, the historian Guity Nashat Becker, “Free Markets and the Economics of Life,” at the time of the publication of their book, The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life.

And, an excellent discussion of Dr. Becker’s work can be found in the article, “Five Market-Friendly Nobelists: Friedman, Stigler, Buchanan, Coase, and Becker,” authored by the late Charles K. Rowley (The Independent Review, Winter 1999).

The economics profession—and the world at large—has lost one of its leading lights. I join my colleagues in sadness and regret at Gary Becker’s death.

William F. Shughart II is Research Fellow and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.
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