Gary S. Becker received the 1992 Nobel Prize in economics for “having extended the domain of economic theory to aspects of human behavior which had previously been dealt with—if at all—by other social science disciplines such as sociology, demography and criminology.”

Becker’s unusually wide applications of economics started early. In 1955 he wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on the economics of discrimination. Among other things, Becker successfully challenged the Marxist view that discrimination helps the person who discriminates. Becker pointed out that if an employer refuses to hire a productive worker simply because of skin color, that employer loses out on a valuable opportunity. In short, discrimination is costly to the person who discriminates.

Becker showed that discrimination will be less pervasive in more competitive industries because companies that discriminate will lose market share to companies that do not. He also presented evidence that discrimination is more pervasive in more-regulated, and therefore less-competitive, industries. The idea that discrimination is costly to the discriminator is common sense among economists today, and that is due to Becker.

In the early 1960s Becker moved on to the fledgling area of human capital. One of the founders of the concept (the other being Theodore Schultz), Becker pointed out what again seems like common sense but was new at the time: education is an investment. Education adds to our human capital just as other investments add to physical capital. (For more on this, see Becker’s article, “Human Capital,” in this encyclopedia.)

One of Becker’s insights is that time is a major cost of investing in education. Possibly that insight led him to his next major area, the study of the allocation of time within a family. Applying the economist’s concept of opportunity cost, Becker showed that as market wages rose, the cost to married women of staying home would rise. They would want to work outside the home and economize on household tasks by buying more appliances and fast food.

Not even crime escaped Becker’s keen analytical mind. In the late 1960s he wrote a trail-blazing article whose working assumption is that the decision to commit crime is a function of the costs and benefits of crime. From this assumption he concluded that the way to reduce crime is to raise the probability of punishment or to make the punishment more severe. His insights into crime, like his insights on discrimination and human capital, helped spawn a new branch of economics.

In the 1970s Becker extended his insights on allocation of time within a family, using the economic approach to explain the decisions to have children and to educate them, and the decisions to marry and to divorce.

Becker was a professor at Columbia University from 1957 to 1969. Except for that period, he spent his entire career at the University of Chicago, where he held joint appointments in the departments of economics and sociology. Becker won the John Bates Clark Award of the American Economic Association in 1967 and was president of that association in 1987.

About the Author

David R. Henderson is the editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is also an emeritus professor of economics with the Naval Postgraduate School and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He earned his Ph.D. in economics at UCLA.

Selected Works

1965. “A Theory of the Allocation of Time.” Economic Journal 40, no. 299: 493–508.
1968. “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach.” Journal of Political Economy 76, no. 2: 169–217.
1971. The Economics of Discrimination. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1975. Human Capital. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
1981. Treatise on the Family. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Related Entries

Related Links

An Interview with Gary Becker, an EconTalk podcast, July 10, 2006.

A Conversation with Gary Becker, an Intellectual Portrait at Econlib.

Edward Lazear on Becker, an EconTalk podcast, June 9, 2014.

Bryan Caplan on Discrimination and Labor Markets, an EconTalk podcast, December 4, 2006.

Bryan Caplan on Parenting, an EconTalk podcast, May 9, 2011.

Lauren Landsburg, Gary Becker, A Reminiscence, at EconLog, May 6, 2014.

Robert P. Murphy, The Economics of Discrimination, at Econlib, August 2, 2010.

Pierre Lemieux, The Economics of Smoking, at Econlib, June 28, 2000.

Pedro Schwartz, The Rebirth of Classical Political Economy, at Econlib, July 4, 2016.