Gary Becker, an Appreciation by Michel Foucault

by Kieran Healy on May 4, 2014

Gary Becker, University Professor of Economics and Sociology at the University of Chicago, has died at the age of eighty three. I am certainly not going to attempt an obituary or assessment. But something Tim Carmody [said on Twitter]( caught my eye: “People sometimes talk about ‘neoliberalism’ as a kind of intellectual bogeyman. Gary Becker was the actual guy.” In a somewhat similar way, people sometimes talked about ‘poststructuralism’ as a kind of intellectual bogeyman, and Michel Foucault was the actual guy. It is worth looking at what one avatar had to say about the other. Foucault [lectured on Becker and related matters in the late 1970s](–1979/dp/0312203411/). One of the things he saw right away was the scope and ambition of Becker’s project, and the conceptual turn—accompanying wider social changes—which would enable economics to become not just a topic of study, like geology or English literature, but rather an “[approach to human behavior](”. Here is Foucault in March of 1979, for instance:

> In practice, economic analysis, from Adam Smith to the beginning of the twentieth century, broadly speaking takes as its object the study of the mechanisms of production, the mechanisms of exchange, and the data of consumption within a given social structure, along with the interconnections between these three mechanisms. Now, for the neo-liberals, economic analysis should not consist in the study of these mechanisms, but in the nature and consequences of what they call substitutible choices … In this they return to, or rather put to work, a defintion [from Lionel Robbins] … ‘Economics is the science of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’. … Economics is not therefore the analysis of the historical logic of processes [like capital, investment, and production]; it is the analysis of the internal rationality, the strategic programming of individuals’ activity.

Then comes the identification not just of the shift in emphasis but also point of view:

> This means undertaking the economic analysis of labor. What does bringing labor back into economic analysis mean? It does not mean knowing where labor is situated between, let’s say, capital and production. The problem of bringing labor back into the field of economic analysis … is how the person who works uses the means available to him. … What system of choice and rationality does the activity of work conform to? … So we adopt the point of view of the worker and, for the first time, ensure that the worker is not present in the economic analysis as an object—the object of supply and demand in the form of labor power—but as an active economic subject.

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