The economics profession lost, as Tyler Cowen put it, perhaps its greatest living practitioner on May 3rd. I consider myself very fortunate to have met Gary Becker several times through the years and to have had the opportunity to discuss economics with him.
When Mario Rizzo and I started Advances in Austrian Economics in the early 1990s (first Volume was published in 1994), we reached out to Gary Becker to participate in the symposium that framed that volume -- "Can Economists Handle Change?" Becker declined to participate, but his letter to us was extremely encouraging. First, he said that Austrian economics needed a greater professional hearing and thus he applauded us on the establishment of this research outlet. Second, while declining, he affirmed the importance of the question we were asking and that economists really needed to focus on explaning social change.
My entire history of interactions with Becker reinforced these 2 points --- encouraging the development of, and desire to have, greater professional engagement of Austrian economics, and relatedly acknowledging the scientific importance of asking the sort of questions that Austrian economists wanted to address.
One way that many Austrian economists have defined the school of thought is to emphasize (1) Methodological Individualism, (2) Methodological subjectivism, and (3) Market Process analysis. Now that project takes on different shape depending on the philosophy of science perspective one adopts. James Buchanan, for example, basically was caught between his view of predictive science and his view of philosophical understanding. To the extent men act as rats, Buchanan would argue, then the tight economic model of maximizing and market equilibrium is the appropriate tool of scientific economics. But to the extent that we want to discuss men as human choosers (i.e., artifactual man), then radical subjectivism and the non-teleological nature of the market process must be understood. Of course, Buchanan would add, such a turn does imply a sacrifice of the predictive content of economic theory. Buchanan is the product of a certain philosophical age -- still Knightian in a fundamental sense, but also educated and engaged professionally during the age of formalism and empiricism as the defining characteristics of scientific economics.
It is critical to remember that Becker is slightly younger than Buchanan, and that decade mattered a lot for the way that economics was taught and practiced. Buchanan was educated before Samuelson and Friedman had their twin impact on 20th century economics, Becker after their intellectual imprint was firmly established. I bring this up because I think Gary Becker's amazing intellectual generiosity to young representatives of the Austrian school of economics as well as his antipathy to what he might consider esoteric aspects of the teachings of the Austrian school of economics can be made sense of by considering the implicit philosophy of science he firmly held. What does it mean to be a good economic scientist? The way you answer that question will largely determine what sort of economics you do.
I have been accussed of a "sky is blue" version of Austrian economics as I tend to find the elements in the thoughts of others (historical and contemporary) that fit into my own understanding of "good economics" -- which is largely defined in my understanding in the research program one finds in Mises-Hayek-Kirzner. How does Becker fit? Well, in my way to read his contribution, I interpret him as a practitioner of praxeology IF one adopts a philosophy of science that Hayek dubbed "scientism". In fact, I would argue that there are two ways to translate Mises's project into this "modern" philosophy of science to operationalize it: (1) the Becker way, and (2) the Vernon Smith way. Smith is explicitly a Lakatosian, and the experiments test the edges. Becker can be interpreted that way as well. There is, of course, alternatives to this modernization and operationalization of the praxeological project --- the sort of bifurcation that I mentioned was Buchanan; the sort of complex phenomena and methodological dualism by degree argument one sees in Hayek; the classic methodological dualism argument one can find in Rothbard and Kirzner, etc. Personally, I am more intellectual comfortable with the Mises-Rothbard-Kirzner strict methodological dualism argument. But there should be no doubt that this line of argument is the most difficult one to run in modern social science --- even after developments in the philosophy of science seemed to cut in that direction.
Understood in this light, we must acknowledge not only the towering achievment of Gary Becker's contributions to modernist social science, but the fundamental praxeological character of his project. Imagine Mises writing Human Action if he was educated in the 1950s and competing as a young economist in the profession in the 1950s and 1960s trying to make their way as a leading scientist. And in this thought experiment, remember the genius in question has adopted the prevailing philosophy of science and not choosing to buck against it (as Rothbard and Kirzner did). My intuition says that the work would look a lot like the sort of univeral rational choice theorizing that was identified with Gary Becker, with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, with James Coleman, etc. And there should be little doubt that in that crowd the most persistent and consistent application of the rational choice perspective was the great Gary Becker.
As a way to stress my point (though none make this same claim I am making) let me link to 3 excellent reflections on Becker by his former students who share with me a deep appreciation and commitment to aspects of the Austrian school of economics: Peter Lewin, Mario Rizzo, and Russ Roberts.
We will most likely not see the likes of a Gary Becker again for a long time -- he was special on multiple margins. We will be learning from his work for generations to come -- even as our philosophical perspective on what constitutes "science" shifts. I often use the term "shelf-life" in talking to my graduate students about this or that currently fashionable thinker ... most don't have a long shelf-life as the expiration date for their ideas is fast approaching. Becker was famous for pointing out that the most fundamental binding constraint that scarcity puts on us is time. How true, but with respect to his own work Becker I would argue achieved timelessness. He has joined the sacred class of the immortals in economics and political economy.
RIP Gary Becker