Gary Becker, an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business (GSB), will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this month for his contribution to knowledge of social institutions through economic theory, the White House announced this week. The award recognizes exceptional service to the country and is the highest honor awarded to a civilian during peacetime.
Becker, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1992 and the National Medal of Science in 2000, will join the ranks of the few economists, including his teacher Milton Friedman, who have received the medal.
“It means a lot to me,” Becker said. “It’s considered the highest civilian award [given] by the United States, and the people who have gotten it in the past have been for the most part very distinguished people who have served the country in one way or another. It’s a great honor to be included. I feel very pleased. Milton Friedman also received it, and I consider it a great honor; he was my teacher and a friend. That’s an added pleasure for me.”
Originally introduced by President Truman in 1945 for wartime service, the award was revived by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 for outstanding civilian service during peacetime. The honor has previously been awarded to teachers, scientists, diplomats, and business executives.
Becker, who earned his Ph.D. in economics from the University, has had a significant influence on the fields of economics and sociology. He employs economic theory to analyze crime and punishment, irrational behavior, and human capital as it applies to individual and family decisions. His current research focuses on the economics of health and human capital.
Taught by some of Chicago’s greats, including Milton Friedman, Theodore Schultz, and Gregg Lewis, Becker first came to economics after a course he took accidentally as a first year at Princeton. But it was not until he arrived at the U of C in 1951 that he first saw economics as a tool for making sense of social issues.
“I encountered great teachers who rekindled my belief that economics could be a powerful tool. They were all using economics to understand not only the narrow economic world but also the whole world. More than anything else coming to Chicago was the best educational decision I made,” Becker said.
Becker said he first started thinking about crime and economic theory when he was forced to make a choice between parking illegally and possibly getting caught, or legally parking and being late for an appointment. He realized that everyone, criminal and non-criminal, constantly encounters such cost-benefit analyses.
Becker believes he began thinking about families and marriage as he sat in a New York City hotel, thinking about how people determine who their spouses will be and why.
“To feel that maybe I can get a handle of some of these subjects has been a revelation. The recognition is good, but the feeling internally that you contributed to something that other people are doing, that’s a great feeling,” Becker said.