Gary Becker (December 2, 1930 – May 3, 2014), an Appreciation by Michel Foucault


Gary Becker died on May 3rd. Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy on Michel Foucault's appreciation of Becker (image from Wikimedia commons).

Foucault lectured on Becker and related matters in the late 1970s. One of the things he saw right away was the scope and ambition of Becker’s project, and the conceptual turn—accompanying wider social changes—which would enable economics to become not just a topic of study, like geology or English literature, but rather an “approach to human behavior“. Here is Foucault in March of 1979, for instance:

In practice, economic analysis, from Adam Smith to the beginning of the twentieth century, broadly speaking takes as its object the study of the mechanisms of production, the mechanisms of exchange, and the data of consumption within a given social structure, along with the interconnections between these three mechanisms. Now, for the neo-liberals, economic analysis should not consist in the study of these mechanisms, but in the nature and consequences of what they call substitutible choices … In this they return to, or rather put to work, a defintion [from Lionel Robbins] … ‘Economics is the science of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’. … Economics is not therefore the analysis of the historical logic of processes [like capital, investment, and production]; it is the analysis of the internal rationality, the strategic programming of individuals’ activity.

Then comes the identification not just of the shift in emphasis but also point of view:

This means undertaking the economic analysis of labor. What does bringing labor back into economic analysis mean? It does not mean knowing where labor is situated between, let’s say, capital and production. The problem of bringing labor back into the field of economic analysis … is how the person who works uses the means available to him. … What system of choice and rationality does the activity of work conform to? … So we adopt the point of view of the worker and, for the first time, ensure that the worker is not present in the economic analysis as an object—the object of supply and demand in the form of labor power—but as an active economic subject.

At first glance it seems strange to see Foucault emphasize the “active economic subject” here. A standard—indeed, clichéd—critique of Becker’s approach is that economic agents are calculating robots that bear little resemblance to real human beings and that, furthermore, their disembedded and completely systematic choice-making takes us far away from any sort of first-person point of view of labor in the economy. If we want a proper account of economic action on the ground surely we will have to look elsewhere. Wasn’t Marx supposed to have been doing something like this, for example?

More here. Also here, you can find Becker on Foucault on Becker.