[OPE-L:2751] RE: Patrick on Becker and his critics

Gil Skillman (gskillman@wesleyan.edu)
Mon, 29 Jul 1996 11:09:25 -0700 (PDT)

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I'm in agreement with the essentials of Andrew's post on Becker, which must
perhaps be justified in light of Michael's reasonable comments, reproduced
below. I think Andrew accurately pinpointed the essence of Becker's
analytical agenda as generalizing and examining the consequences of
constrained optimization. This hypothesis is theoretically coherent (but
necessarily incomplete of itself--see below), empirically plausible
(suggesting, as it does, that people try to do the best they can with what
they have) and practically difficult to disprove except in very precisely
defined settings.

Further, I don't see why it should be a leading concern of radical
economists to attempt to "disprove" the hypothesis of constrained
optimization, because in fact that hypothesis is not inconsistent with any
core claim of radical economics, and certainly not of Marxian economics. To
the contrary, Marx represents his account as being consistent with the
actions of strictly self-interested, maximizing individuals (I, 280 and
342-343, Penguin). The reason is that it is not optimization that matters
so much as the constraints under which individuals optimize, and these link
directly to structures of wealth and production.

Correspondingly, the chief problem with Becker (apart from possibly
overzealousness in the application of economic methodology to diverse social
problems) is the ideological baggage he brings to the analysis, both
positive and normative. Thus the chief task for progressives vis-a-vis the
Becker canon is to separate the methodological wheat from the ideological chaff.

As for Michael's specific comments:

>I count myself among the skeptics regarding Becker. I do not find him
>particularly brillian. He seems to have the same answer for everything.

Unlike Marxists? I thought Andrew's point was well taken: if we have a
valid and compelling core idea, it needs to be developed and applied in as
many different settings as possible--just as Becker has done.

>He is clever, yes, in showing how market outcomes can be extended to
>areas that economists have previously neglected. In doing so, he has,
>as Patrick has insisted, brought areas to the attention of economists
>that they have neglected. But what sort of light has he thrown on the

Some light, certainly, and he differs from many others in being
willing--even insistent--on having theoretical conclusions be subjected to
scrutiny of the data. So the real question is: are there coherent,
non-tautological theories competing with Becker's that are demonstrably more
in keeping with the relevant data?

>Alan Freeman pointed me to Mirowski's article in his Tooth and Claw
>book about animal studies. He mocked the Texas economists who did
>the experiments deriving the utility curves of rats. Did this work
>help economists bring new insights to bear on psychology?

Compared to what? Reading any undergraduate psych text may be enough to
convince you that much of the alternative is a swamp.

>Would a theory that I could explain the production of literature in
>terms of constrained optimization, help me as an economist, understtand
>Shakespeare any better?

No, but nor was it intended to accomplish this, any more than any other
social scientific theory can pretend to account for exceptional individual

>Suppose you, as an economist, found yourself in a room with 10,000 committed
>activists who asked you what they could do to promote progressive causes.
>Would you send them to the library to read Becker?

This is like asking, suppose you found yourself in a room with 10,000
committed business people who asked you what they could do to promote export
sales; would you send them to the library to read Marx?

I do not hold against Marx the fact that the answer to this question is
probably no.

>Andrew and Patrick arre correct to warn against anti-intellectualism, but
>I remain skeptical about Mr. Becker.

His work justifies skepticism. But inattention?