One major problem that Becker addressed in his column was the drug war. He did not shrink from advocating a free market in illegal drugs, a good that he, I'm confident, did not buy. He saw the drug war as a tremendous waste. Indeed, his second to last entry on the Becker-Posner Blog, which he shared with federal judge and legal scholar Richard Posner, was titled "Why Marijuana Should be Decriminalized." In The Economics of Life, a collection of his Business Week columns that he published with his wife, historian Guity Nashat Becker, Becker lays out his views on the drug war and other issues. I highlighted his views on the drug war when I reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal. The book review editor actually added a sentence to my review claiming that Becker was naïve in his advocacy. Of course, I fought hard to keep that sentence out--and I succeeded.
Becker also applied his understanding of government's imperfections to foreign policy. In a 2010 interview with the New Yorker's John Cassidy, Becker said:
So I supported, say, the invasion of Iraq. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake, not only because things didn't go that well, but because I didn't really take into account enough that governments don't manage things very well.
Many people, including Becker's mentor Milton Friedman, spoke over the years about how brilliant Becker was. The story that best illustrates his brilliance is from my friend, Harry Watson, who was a junior colleague of Becker's at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In a note to me earlier this week, Watson wrote the following:
Gary was a prince and had an IQ off the charts even for Chicago. His work was not particularly mathematical but he had the ability to understand complex mathematical papers and do sensitivity analysis in his head. I remember a workshop with [MIT economists and later Nobel Prize winner] Peter Diamond (I think) that had a big audience of all the key faculty. Diamond filled the blackboards with a model using an esoteric branch of mathematics to show some sort of market failure. It was an arid exercise and he appeared to think that it would be over everyone's head. In his matter-of-fact way, Gary spoke up at the end and described how the result would change with different specifications of the initial conditions, even though this was a branch of mathematics that he probably had never seen before. Becker showed that the market failure case was a special one and that most specifications yielded an efficient outcome. Everyone was dumbfounded. Even George Stigler was speechless.
What more is there to say? Gary Becker was brilliant--and a prince. I will miss him.