Pomo Periscope XXIII: Becker on Foucault on Becker

18 November 2012 at 6:31 am 3 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Given the importance they usually ascribe to the sinister forces of “neo-liberalism,” it is — perhaps– surprising that prominent pomo writers seldom engage with the major economists with more or less strong classical liberal/libertarian leanings, such as Nobel Prize Winners Gary Becker, James Buchanan, Ronald Coase, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek.  However, most of these write very clearly; for example, it is hard to imagine a stronger contrast to the murky prose of pomo than Nobelist Gary Becker’s refreshingly direct and clear writing. 

And yet, pomo demi-god and arguably the clearest writer among the pomo social critics and philosophers, Michel Foucault critically dealt with Gary Becker in his 1979 “Birth of Biopolitics” lectures.  In a recent UChicago WP, “Becker on Ewald on Foucault on Becker’: American Neoliberalism and Michel Foucault’s 1979 ‘Birth of Biopolitics’ Lectures,” Foucault’s assistant at the time of these lectures, Francois Ewald, debate Foucault’s Becker-reading with Bernard Harcourt, and–the scoop of this transcribed dialogue–Becker himself.

The whole debate is (unlike the Pomo Periscope) highly civilized; in fact, Becker  notes that “I was very happy to read these two lectures, which impressed me in a number of directions. They are very clear, I thought. He had a good understanding of what human capital consisted of.” However, in spite of his politeness Becker offers a direct refutation of the Foucauldian critique that economics in general, and human capital theory in particular, dehumanize people and portray them stimulus-response puppets:

Instead of saying that the vision of man is poor, I would say the vision of man is rich in this approach, because you enrich both what people do as consumers—that’s why I think Foucault says this was an interesting theory of consumption—and you enrich what they do in terms of a lot of their other life decisions that would go beyond consumption, in terms of their education, how they might invest to respond to different government laws, how they might evade bad laws.

A fun read!!  HT to Henrik Lando.

Entry filed under: Ephemera.

Don’t Fear the Reaper More Genghis Revisionism

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. fabiorojas  |  19 November 2012 at 12:28 am

    I’ve always felt that the issue is the gap between the literal reading of standard neo-classical economics and its practice. Taken literally, the theory of consumer choice is as rich as Becker indicates. What makes it so powerful is that economics becomes the story of how people make choices, respond to budget constraints, innovate, etc.

    In contrast, the practice is often much more narrow. Think of Levitt’s mantra “incentives matter.” And by incentives, one thinks of monetary incentives. In the policy world, economically oriented policy prescriptions often boil down to “pay/punish them more.” In theory, economics is fully capable of many things, but in the hands of some folks, it becomes a one trick pony.

  • 2. Claude Singer  |  21 November 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Hi – I’m new to this site — but the paragraph cited here is one ridiculously messy bit of prose. Is that supposed to be “clear writing”? — or a joke. Two “in terms of” clauses in there — and no structure whatsoever. I guess the writing standards in sociology or economics or whatever this is are pretty low!

    But good luck. I think I agree with this community — uh, in terms of political philosophy.

  • 3. Nicolai Foss  |  21 November 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Claude: The WP is a _transcription_. GB did not _write_ the text you criticize. This is what he _said_. You should check GB’s written output before you offer your verdict on the “writing standards in sociology or economics or whatever” (“whatever” — tsk tsk)

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