Eulogy: An Economist Who Measured All Things

The world has lost a sustainability pioneer few recognized as such. Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, died over the weekend, age 83.

His work straddled traditional economics and a world of human endeavor long ignored by it. Becker called for a "broad and unqualified definition" of economics, as he put it in 1976, that treated many social issues with new analytical rigor. He consequently came to extoll private enterprise as a force to improve people's lives, rather than as an impediment, a feeling still too common on the American left and elsewhere.

Such a broad approach has become standard operating procedure. Companies, investors, governments and civil society groups all commonly "analyze nonmarket and social behavior" -- a phrase from his 1992 Nobel address -- to glean insight about how people make decisions, and what it means for entrepreneurship, invention and problem-solving.

Today, much economic work on nonmarket and social behavior travels under the name "sustainability." It's a name that may or may not stick forever, or for long. What will last, however, are the basic private-sector dynamics that have brought it to the fore: movement toward freedom, competition and invention.

In his 1976 book of essays, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, Becker laid out how he came to crunch numbers on just about everything:

In college I was attracted by the problems studied by sociologists and the analytical techniques used by economists. These interests began to merge in my doctoral study, which used economic analysis to understand racial discrimination. Subsequently I applied the economic approach to fertility, education, the uses of time, crime, marriage, social interactions, and other "sociological," "legal," and "political" problems.

Only after long reflection on this work and the rapidly growing body of related work by others did I conclude that the economic approach was applicable to all human behavior.

That lesson in rigor and curiosity is worth harnessing for the adventures ahead.

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