Posts Tagged ‘Gary Becker’

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Gary Becker’s recent death has provoked widespread praise (for example, from Peter Lewin through Justin Wolfers to Amita Etzioni) for his role in initially creating and then extending “economics imperialism.”

The basic idea (as presented on Wikipedia, by Edward P. Lazear [pdf], and in this interview with Becker himself) is that economics imperialism refers to an “economic analysis of seemingly non-economic aspects of life,” such as crime, law, the family, racial discrimination, tastes, religion, and war.*

Actually, that’s wrong. Economics imperialism is not the economic analysis of supposedly noneconomic behaviors and institutions; it’s the extension of neoclassical economics to those domains. Economics imperialism is, in this sense, the highest stage of neoclassical economics.

There are lots of different ways of making sense of the economic dimensions of our individual and social lives. What Becker and his followers set out to do was to analyze various aspects of individual decisionmaking and social institutions through the lens of neoclassical theory. This has meant reducing those decisions and institutions to individual, rational, self-interested calculations of costs and benefits, under conditions of scarcity, such as to arrive at efficient, equilibrium solutions.

The imperialist extension of neoclassical theory to supposedly noneconomic phenomena was predicated on the formation of a neoclassical monopoly within the discipline of economics. Once that monopoly over teaching, research, publications, and funding was achieved within the traditional domain of the discipline in the postwar period, it became possible to branch out and colonize the rest of the space of social theory. (I should note that the monopoly of neoclassical theory within the discipline was never complete, and has been contested throughout the postwar period.) That’s what economics imperialism was all about: to attempt to create a theoretical monopoly across the social sciences by exporting the methods of neoclassical economics to other domains. This is what made it different from the previous period, when it was the conclusions of neoclassical economics that were exported to other disciplines; now, it was the method that was being exported.

The result, of course, was not to unify social theory across the disciplines but to create new divisions within the disciplines. It’s no longer a battle between, say, economists and sociologists but, instead, between neoclassical economists and sociologists, on one hand, and non-neoclassical economists and sociologists, on the other. Much the same is true in political science, anthropology, psychology, and so on. And it’s not just a battle over the use of some of the key concepts and tools closely identified with neoclassical economics (such as mathematical modeling, rational choice, equilibrium, and so on) but over the actual entry points of social analysis. Because, in the end, that’s what Becker’s neoclassical analysis privileges: the reduction of the social space to the decisions and actions of individual subjects.

The real challenge to economics imperialism—inside and outside the discipline of economics—is, as Louis Althusser put it, the idea of a process without a subject.

 

*What I didn’t remember, or perhaps never knew, is that Becker understood his work to be a critique of and an alternative to Marxism (or at least what he took to be Marxism). It’s right there at the beginning of his Nobel lecture [pdf] and the interview with Religion and Liberty:

R&L: You are sometimes called an “economic imperialist.” What is meant by this?

Becker: That refers to my belief that economic analysis can be applied to many problems in social life, not just those conventionally called “economic.” The theme of my Nobel lecture, based on my life’s work, is that the horizons of economics need to be expanded. Economists can talk not only about the demand for cars, but also about matters such as the family, discrimination, and religion, and about prejudice, guilt, and love. Yet these areas have traditionally received little attention in economics. In that sense, it’s true: I am an economic imperialist. I believe good techniques have a wide application. Adam Smith and many others believed that as well.

On the other hand, my economic imperialism doesn’t have anything to do with crude materialism or the view that material status is the sum total of a person’s value. That view has much more in common with Marxist analysis.

Franck Scurti, “Homo Economicus” at Cabinet

Franck Scurti, “Homo Economicus” at Cabinet

Maybe I should leave them alone, and just get on my with my grading. But there are certain misconceptions that get repeated so often someone has to step in to correct the record.

Such as the idea that “economists”—without qualification—are “finally taking inequality seriously.” That’s the title of Mark Thoma’s latest essay in which he has the temerity to assert that “Until recently, most questions surrounding the distribution of income were considered out of the realm of serious, scientific analysis.”

Now, that may be true of mainstream economists, who have either ignored the problem of the distribution of income or  attempted to contain the issue by examining it through the lens of marginal productivity theory (according to which, absent market imperfections, everyone gets what they deserve). But it’s certainly not true of generations of nonmainstream, heterodox economists for whom the distribution of income has been central to the dynamics of capitalist economies.

But my more general point is that you should run anytime anyone argues that “economists do this” or “economists say that.” Given the existence of different theories or discourses within the discipline of economics, there is nothing economists in general do or say. There are only neoclassical economists and Keynesian economists and Marxist economists, and so on—and they all do and say different things, about the distribution of income and much else.

The other pet peeve concerns the characterization of Marx as an economic determinist, again without qualification. This canard has returned in Kevin Quinn’s facile attempt to find a symmetry between Marx and the late Gary Becker.

I want to compare them in another respect. Both championed different forms of Rabid Economism. Marx’s economism was holist,  Becker’s individualist, but both forms are equally reductionist and equally  imbecilic. Marx’s materialism reduces the cultural, the political, the ethical to super-structural epiphenomena: all were just distorted reflections of the underlying reality of class struggle. Becker thinks all human agency simply consists of maximizing utility. For neither thinker do human beings have the ability to think and act  “for the sake of the world,” as Hannah Arendt would say. For each, we are deluding ourselves if we think that acting can ever be a matter of  trying to get things right – to do what is called for, to believe what is warranted -independent of what our interests dictate. For both, in other words, the concept of disinterested action – including the disinterested pursuit of truth – is a snare and a delusion.  Finally, in this latter respect, both systems of thought are self-undermining:   neither can make sense of  itself as a disinterested attempt to understand the human condition.

There is no doubt that Becker championed a reductionist conception of individual decisionmaking and therefore of the universe of economic and social interactions—including, famously, the family, suicide, and racial discrimination.* However, where’s the evidence of Marx’s supposed economism? While it’s an oft-repeated assertion, just a little research would have uncovered a nice piece by Peter G. Stillman disputing that myth, as well as an entire tradition associated with the journal Rethinking Marxism that has sought to distance Marx and Marxist theory from that unfortunate characterization.

So, let’s finally put these two shibboleths to rest: there’s no such thing as this is what economists, without qualification, do or say; and Marxism is not economic determinism.

 

*While we’re on the topic of Becker, permit me one further reflection: while I can’t agree with the praise heaped on him by economists like Justin Wolfers, I will admit to a grudging admiration for someone who was the subject of derision from mainstream economists at places like Harvard and MIT during the 1960s—and yet stuck to his guns and pursued a research strategy that, at least at the time, placed him at the margins of the economics establishment.