Book of Gary Becker’s unpublished work shows his evolution as an economist

Former colleagues and students draw upon Nobel laureate’s drafts and notes of his approach to human behavior

Prof. Gary Becker, AM'53, PhD'55, is regarded as one of the foremost economics scholars of the 20th century. The Nobel laureate broke new ground by approaching economics as the study of human behavior, and his contributions to the field continue to be felt, even a decade after his death in 2014.

A recently published book edited by Becker’s former colleagues and students draws upon his unpublished work to bring readers closer to the ever-evolving research of the pioneering economist—and perhaps inspires them to continue working where he left off.

The Economic Approach: Unpublished Writings of Gary S. Becker (2023, UChicago Press) was brought to life through the editing by Profs. Julio J. Elias of the University of CEMA, Argentina; and UChicago Professors Casey B. Mulligan and Kevin M. Murphy.

The process began when Guity Becker, Gary’s wife, gathered together a collection of her husband’s papers from over the years. These included drafts and notes of both his published and unpublished work, from sketches of initial ideas to near-completed papers.

“When Guity Becker shared with us these unpublished manuscripts, which I had never seen, we were all fascinated,” said Julio Elias, a former student, teaching assistant, research assistant and coauthor of Gary Becker’s. “It was like when Becker would send us his first thoughts on an idea; a problem that he thought was worth tackling with the economic approach because of the important insight that it could bring, especially when the implications would lead to ‘uncommon sense’ implications, typically considered controversial.”

The team worked to format the collection in a way that a reader could move through Becker’s work, organized by topics the late researcher spent considerable time working on. These categories included different parts of social science that, according to Mulligan, Becker believed didn't have enough of an economics lens on them yet: notably, taking an economic approach to human behavior, such as preference formation, rational indoctrination, income inequality, drugs and addiction, and the economics of family.

Elias did the bulk of organizing the papers, which sometimes included typing the papers that were not available in digital formats and produced a draft of the book. He, Mulligan and Murphy collaborated on writing introductions for each chapter, the chronological academic biography, and in putting together the list of dissertations that he chaired at Columbia University and UChicago.

“There's a lot of continuity in how he approached the world, but you can also see his evolution over time, given it covers such a wide range of his career,” Murphy said. “It gives you a perspective about how Gary was changing over time, learning more and trying to improve on the answers he had.”

Murphy said he expects many former students and colleagues may use the text as a way to reminisce about Becker’s impact on the field of economics, but also to get motivated to do more work along the path he forged—continuing to answer the questions he asked and maybe even finish projects he began.

“The reader will gain deeper insights into Gary Becker through these unfinished manuscripts,” Elias contended. “They hold significant value in providing a better understanding of Becker's craft of economic analysis, revealing his process: Gary Becker as a master of economic analysis.”

The text is also a resource for those less familiar with Becker the economist, but interested in the “edges” of economics.

“If you go through the topics in the book, many of them wouldn't be covered in your standard macro, micro, graduate or undergraduate textbook,” Murphy said. “The book could help people get interested in some of those areas that maybe they weren't exposed to directly.”

Adapted from a story that was first published on the Division of the Social Sciences website.