Gary Becker transformed his field as few scholars ever do. There are many who advance understanding in their chosen field or propose significant new theories or do important empirical testing. There are almost none who redefine the subject matter. Before Becker, economics was about topics like business cycles, inflation, trade, monopoly and investment. Today it is also about racial discrimination, schooling, fertility, marriage and divorce, addiction, charity, political influence–the stuff of human life. If, as some assert, economics is an imperial social science, Gary Becker was its emperor.
It was Becker’s great insight that the ways of thinking that have proved immensely powerful in understanding markets can also illuminate the way we live much more broadly. When politicians talk about investing in education, they are channeling Becker’s theory of human capital. When NGO advocates talk about the importance of girls’ schooling in developing countries for addressing population pressures, they are channeling Becker’s theories of fertility. When prosecutorial advocates of stiff sentencing argue its benefits for deterrence, they are channeling Becker on the economics of crime. When public-health advocates call for taxation of tobacco to discourage teenagers from starting to smoke, they are channeling Becker’s theory of rational addiction. And the list goes on.
Becker lived a model scholarly life. He was open to anyone and to any idea, whether it confirmed or refuted his previous research. His refusal over a long career to sink to ad hominem argument despite plenty of provocation should be an inspiration to his fellow economists. It was not popular acclaim nor policy impact nor celebrity that he sought, although in the end he reaped all these rewards. Gary Becker sought the truth, and our progress toward it will be slower without him.
Summers is the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and director of the National Economic Council
This appears in the May 19, 2014 issue of TIME.