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A bunch of essays, not a book
on December 28, 2014
I was first exposed to Gary Becker (as well has his lifelong co-author Richard Posner and Mitchell Polinsky to boot) my Sophomore year in college when I took a seminar in Law and Economics. Back then in 1988 he was one of the few brave academic advocates of drug legalisation (the subject of my eventual paper) and he wrote soooo well, I was hooked. I have followed him since. In recent years I have been an avid reader of the Posner / Becker blog. It has indeed been my first daily click on the Internet, in the hope that they have overnight delivered their trenchant verdict on yet another current issue. That said, I'd never found time for "The Economics of Life," a book I bought a long time ago together with Robert Barro's "Getting it Right." Now, of course, Gary Becker has been taken from us, there will be no more fresh entries in the blog, so I reached into my shelves for a shot of methadone, so to speak.
Sadly, it's not very representative of the rest of his work.
For starters, it's not really a book, it's a compilation of 800-word essays he wrote for Newsweek in the late eighties and early nineties. The timing here is critical. These essays were written at a juncture when "free market" ideology, of which Becker was a prominent preacher, was at its apogee, possibly even its moment of hubris. Keen to give a "coup de grace" to the mortally wounded ideology of central planning and hyper-regulation that suffered its biggest blow with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Becker is having his own "end of history" moment here. There's nothing that cannot be left to the market according to these essays:
Becker takes aim at every possible form of government participation in the economy, from the public school system, subsidised tuition at state-run colleges and the government monopoly on postal services, all the way to the minimum wage, affirmative action and drug prohibition. He speaks in favor of workfare over welfare, advocates the post-Vietnam status quo when it comes to voluntary (professional to you and me) military service over the draft, and puts in a big plug for NAFTA. There's also some stuff that already identifies him as an old man, like when he wants to turn back the clock on no-fault divorce or when he cannot drop the point on what he perceives to be pay restrictions against college athletes.
With twenty to thirty years' hindsight, one would have to say he scores no better than 50:50 on his judgements.
Becker very accurately predicts the student loan debacle we are about to find ourselves in today: the trillion dollar market for unserviceable debt cannot be regulated away neither by having the government stand behind it nor by making it impossible to write off; his recommendation (coming from the right, funnily enough) that people ought to be forced to buy health insurance (p.41 in the book) has found its embodiment in Obamacare; affirmative action is now deemed to have run its course as minorities have made it to the highest echelons of academia and society; even leftists today are prepared to agree that there are undeniable benefits from free trade, while the wealthy are now pretty much ready to accept that government handouts will have to be means-tested, just like Becker says they should be.
But history has been less kind to his fixation on education vouchers, society is groaning under the weight of higher state-school college tuition (that has come to pass due to busted state budgets rather than ideology), workfare, instituted under Clinton, has been a disaster for the children of the single mothers who were forced to take on jobs and even the "voluntary" nature of the military, while impossible to reverse, is blamed by many as one of the main causes for the way the US sleepwalked into two wars it could only lose.
All that said, these Newsweek columns are not without merit. At the time when they were written they provided to many readers their first exposure to a way of thinking about the economy that was not yet taught in college. If you were a college student in 1985, your main Economics text, Samuelson, had a prediction for the date the Soviet economy would surpass the American. In that context, these columns would have been a breath of fresh air.
And if Becker had hung on a bit longer, I suspect he'd finally see his (rather premature) prediction that the "time is ripe" for drug legalisation come true.
From where we stand today, however, you are well advised to look up in the table of contents the date on which every essay was written, or else you will be disappointed. So while the book scores well as a historical document, or a place to establish what the "free market" book-end could be defined on this wide variety of topics, it fails (and if fails rather dismally) to rise to the standard of analysis, let alone humility, that you would be used to if you were a regular reader of the author's blog.