Becker, who picked up the Nobel prize in economics two decades ago, pioneered a rational choice, rigorously microeconomic analysis in what were then novel areas, such as crime, education, discrimination, marriage and childbearing. The recent, best-selling Freakonomics book was deeply influenced by Becker’s approach. He showed, for example, why it could be sensible for restaurants to encourage long queues or why it might be rational to park illegally under certain circumstances.
He worked as a professor at the University of Chicago for most of his academic career, spanning the departments of economics, law and sociology due to his multi-disciplinary approach. He was also a well-known advocate of free-market economics and a broadly libertarian philosophy.
Becker’s early work concerned the way that discrimination by businesses, particularly against the employment of ethnic minorities, disadvantages them in a competitive market. As well as posing a significant cost to the minority groups, he argued that discrimination would negatively impact the majority of workers. The work was controversial when it was published in 1950s America.
A focus on human capital by governments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is also partly down to Becker’s work. However, in his Nobel Prize lecture, he said that it might be “difficult to appreciate the hostility” that the work initially received in the 1950s and 1960s.
He added: “The very concept of human capital was alleged to be demeaning because it treated people as machines. To approach schooling as an investment rather than a cultural experience was considered unfeeling and extremely narrow... Only gradually did economists, let alone others, accept the concept of human capital as a valuable tool.”
Insights on human capital are now some of the most important in determining the value of investment in education, including higher education and training.
Becker’s influence on the disciplines he studied and researched was so far ranging that it is unlikely that any students of economics or sociology could have completed an undergraduate degree in recent decades without encountering his work, knowingly or not.
Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, called Becker a “transformational thinker of truly remarkable impact”, adding: “He was intellectually fearless. As a scholar and as a person, he represented the best of what the University of Chicago aspires to be.”