Gary S. Becker, recipient of the 1992 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and University Professor of Economics and of Sociology at the University of Chicago, died on 3 May in Chicago. He was 83.
According to his Nobel Prize citation, Becker is best known 'for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including non-market behavior,' most notably, the study of the family. Other areas of interest included the economic analysis of crime, human capital formation, discrimination, population and immigration. >His Nobel Lecture, 'The Economic Way of Looking at Life' is perhaps the best introduction to some of his key ideas and intellectual contributions.
Like many economists in the classical liberal tradition, Becker was keenly interested in the public policy implications of his ideas. One of his public policy recommendations was to auction permanent migration rights rather than giving them away for free to a limited number of politically and bureaucratically favoured recipients.
Becker saw that existing approaches to regulating migration were inefficient and could be improved through the introduction of a market-determined price. Prospective migrants have more information about their prospects for success in a new country than bureaucrats. An auction system would reveal that information and eliminate inefficient non-price competition for migration rights.
Becker also had a sophisticated understanding of political economy that often led to counter-intuitive conclusions. For example, he noted that the introduction of what might seem like more efficient taxes to replace inefficient ones could induce an expansion in the size of government, leading to a greater misallocation of resources on the expenditure side of government budgets. Even supposedly efficient taxes could thus be inefficient.
Becker was a very active member of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded by F. A. Hayek in 1947. I was fortunate enough to have met and chatted with him at Society meetings.
In his 1992 Nobel lecture, Becker noted that 'the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not.' Sadly, Gary Becker has now met with his time constraint.
Dr Stephen Kirchner is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.