The Economist Gary Becker Taught The World To See In A Completely New Way

Gary BeckerREUTERS/Phil McCartenGary Becker, Nobel Laureate, 1992; University Professor of Economics and Sociology, University of Chicago

Nobel Laureate economist Gary Becker has passed away, Greg Mankiw reports on his blog.

The 82-year old Becker was a pioneer in using the tools of economics to analyse things that are frequently thought to be outside the realm of economics.

This idea of using economics to analyse non-market things seems normal these days (the book Freakonomics was all about this, and was a huge blockbuster). But when Gary Becker started doing this it was novel. And he truly taught people to see the world in new ways.

Becker’s Nobel Prize lecture is titled The Economic Way Of Looking At Life (.pdf) and in it, Becker briefly goes over how he used economics to analyse such topics as crime (why people commit it), discrimination against minorities, and family life.

In his powerful intro, he makes two important points. One is that economists who presume that everyone is selfish (maximizing their own utility) take too narrow a view of human motivation. People are motivated to act for all kinds of reasons (jealousy, spite, etc.). His other point is that while productivity has provided abundance in many areas, the one resource that we’ll never have more of his time. Time will always run out, and there will always only be 24 hours in a day. For this reason, we’ll never have Utopia, because that scarcity will always be there.

My research uses the economic approach to analyse social issues that range beyond those usually considered by economists. This lecture will describe the approach, and illustrate it with examples drawn from past and current work.

Unlike Marxian analysis, the economic approach I refer to does not assume that individuals are motivated solely by selfishness or gain. It is a method of analysis, not an assumption about particular motivations. Along with others, I have tried to pry economists away from narrow assumptions about self interest.

Behaviour is driven by a much richer set of values and preferences. The analysis assumes that individuals maximise welfare as they conceive it, whether they be selfish, altruistic, loyal, spiteful, or masochistic. Their behaviour is forward-looking, and it is also consistent over time. In particular, they try as best they can to anticipate the uncertain consequences of their actions.

Forward-looking behaviour, however, may still be rooted in the past, for the past can exert a long shadow on attitudes and values. Actions are constrained by income, time, imperfect memory and calculating capacities, and other limited resources, and also by the available opportunities in the economy and elsewhere. These opportunities are largely determined by the private and collective actions of other individuals and organisations.

Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but 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. Thus, wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones.

For while the growing abundance of goods may reduce the value of additional goods, time becomes more valuable as goods become more abundant. Utility maximization is of no relevance in a Utopia where everyone’s needs are fully satisfied, but the constant flow of time makes such a Utopia impossible.

Read the full lecture here >

NOW WATCH: Money & Markets videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.