How big does your intellectual toolbox need to be? Even as our world seems to have become more and more complex, many philosophers and scientists have argued that we need fewer intellectual tools.
In science, this is a millennia-long trend: Aristotle and Ptolemy supposed that the natural world on Earth was governed by one set of principles while the stars, moon, and planets, were governed by other principles—hence there was a science of nature on Earth and a separate science of the heavens. You needed many and varied intellectual tools to understand the whole cosmos.
Gradually, the idea of separate sciences for different sphere broke down: For example, the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who first argued that planets travel in ellipses rather than circles, supposed that the principles that governed nature on Earth extended up to the moon (although he still supposed that the planets and stars had separate principles). The toolbox was shrinking.
At last, in the late seventeenth century, Isaac Newton asserted that there were universal principles that governed all of nature and, moreover, that these principles could be expressed mathematically. This meant that, while the universe seems complex, you need only a very small toolbox—essentially only calculus and Newton’s three laws of motion—to understand it.
A parallel process of shrinking our intellectual toolbox has been taking place in the humanities and social sciences as well over the past centuries. And, no one argued more successfully that we need only a small intellectual toolbox than Nobel-laureate economist Gary Becker, who died last weekend.
Becker argued the principles of economics—that people are rational actors who respond to incentives—explain choices not just in the marketplace for goods and services but in every social interaction and throughout civil society.
Becker was especially noted for pioneering the application of economics to family life. He introduced the notion of a “marriage market” and explained the roles of husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker not as arising from nature or tradition but from the incentive to enjoy gains from trade. His argument about breadwinners and homemakers parallels the Econ 101 example of two people stuck on a dessert island: Just as castaways will have the most food if one specializes in gathering coconuts while the other fishes, the household will have most if one person specializes in work for pay while the other specializes in housework.
This application of economic principles to areas that had been considered beyond the realm of economic analysis meant that you could shrink your intellectual toolbox. As he wrote in one of his early articles analyzing family life in economic terms:
From a methodological viewpoint, the aim of the paper is to show how another relation [i.e., family life] considered important in the sociological and anthropological literature can be usefully analyzed when incorporated into the framework provided by economic theory.
Becker is asserting that you don’t need methodologies from sociology or anthropology (or from other, yet more traditional, sources) for explaining household roles, you need only economics, and a highly mathematized economics at that. The human world is complex, yet, Becker implies, your toolbox doesn’t need to be very big: Mathematized economics can explain our choices.
It’s only fair to note that Becker didn’t dismiss history, philosophy, and the humanities as irrelevant to a learned person but argued only that they’re not necessary to explain social affairs.
This idea that mathematized economics can explain much, or all, of social affairs helps to explain why Becker is the most-frequently cited economist: He opened up whole new realms of study to economists who had previously limited themselves to the study of markets, trade, and firms.
Becker himself applied economic analyzes widely; not just to families, but to the “market” for donor organs, discrimination against minorities, alcoholism, and civil society broadly understood. He showed how powerful a small toolbox of mathematized economics could be.
On one hand, Becker’s economic analyses seem right on the money—the notion of gains from trade does explain why I always handle certain tasks at home while my husband specializes in others. And yet, we’ll be missing out in our analyses of civil society if we reduce civil society to relationships that can be represented in mathematical equations by an economic analysis of incentives. Economics cannot wholly displace history, philosophy, and political science in our intellectual toolbox.