In addition to Kieran’s terrific write-up yesterday on Foucault’s engagement with Gary Becker, I want to recommend Kathy Geier’s very smart treatment of, among other things, feminist critiques of Becker’s theory of the family.
There are many ideas in Becker’s Treatise on the Family (originally published in 1981; republished in a revised version in 1991) that are problematic and/or offensive to feminists. For one thing, there is the assumption that economic actors behave selfishly in markets but altruistically within families — a theory that’s objectionable in both parts. There’s also the matter of how, in the words of Deirdre McCloskey, “the family in Becker’s world has one purpose, one utility function — guess whose? — unproblematically unified in the way that the neoclassical firm is supposed to be.”
Power struggles and conflicts of interest between family members are simply theorized away. The head of the family has a utility function that is supposed to include his own preferences as well as give weight to those of others in the family. But there’s no attempt to deal with the fact that since the head of the house earns the most money, he has the power to exert disproportionate control over the family’s resources. This is a type of problem that plagues neoclassical models generally. Power relations are rarely modeled.
Kathy also mentions this article that Becker wrote in 1997 about the Chicago Boys who worked in or with the Pinochet regime. Becker’s conclusion about that episode?
In retrospect, their willingness to work for a cruel dictator and start a different economic approach was one of the best things that happened to Chile.
No real surprise there. Many free-marketeers, including Hayek, either defended the Pinochet regime or defended those who worked with it.
But the Becker piece reminded me of that infamous Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) conference in Viña del Mar in 1981, about which I wrote at length two summers ago. Founded in 1947, the MPS is an organization of economists, philosophers, and assorted action intellectuals and businessmen dedicated to spreading the free market gospel across the globe. In the late 1970s, at the height of Pinochet’s repression, Hayek and a few grandees in Chile began discussions about holding the MPS’s annual conference in the seaside city where the coup against Allende had been planned. As subsequent reports would demonstrate, the purpose in meeting there was avowedly propagandist. According to the MPS’s own newsletter, the pilgrimage to Pinochet provided participants with an opportunity
for becoming better acquainted with the land which has had such consistently bad and misrepresenting press coverage (and, perhaps for that reason, it was appropriate to have Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media as one of the first speakers in the first session).
Becker was originally targeted or slated to speak in Viña del Mar, on a panel titled “Education: Government or Individual Responsibility?” His name appears on an agenda with a “T” next to it. For “tentative.” But Becker either never confirmed or he pulled out. No matter: Milton and Rose Friedman, along with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, were there to show the flag—and the calculus of their consent.