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Are All Deaths Suicides?

What does it mean to use “the economic approach” to thinking about the world?

In the old days, if you asked 100 people this question, I bet at least 80 of them would have given some kind of answer having to do with dollars and cents, supply and demand, etc.

Over the past few decades, however, “the economic approach” has come to mean something far broader. We are grateful practitioners of this movement, the godfather of which is almost inarguably Gary Becker, Levitt’s U. of Chicago colleague and a man who has shown up on this blog repeatedly, most recently for winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (He also blogs.)

I was reminded of this the other day while rereading Becker’s book, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. In the introduction, he beautifully describes what he means by “the economic approach,” and includes an example that seems so brazen at first that it may take your breath away — but after a moment, it makes perfect sense, and you see why Becker’s way of thinking is so unusual and so valuable. See for yourself:

Indeed, I have come to the position that the economic approach is a comprehensive one that is applicable to all human behavior, be it behavior involving money prices or imputed shadow prices, repeated or infrequent decisions, large or minor decisions, emotional or mechanical ends, rich or poor persons, men or women, adults or children, brilliant or stupid persons, patients or therapists, businessmen or politicians, teachers or students … Subsequently, I applied the economics approach to fertility, education, the uses of time, crime, marriage, social interactions, and other “sociological,” “legal,” and “political” problems … Good health and a long life are important aims of most persons, but surely no more than a moment’s reflection is necessary to convince anyone that they are not the only aims: somewhat better health or a longer life may be sacrificed because they conflict with other aims … According to the economic approach, therefore, most (if not all!) deaths are to some extent “suicides” in the sense that they could have been postponed if more resources had been invested in prolonging life.

In addition to regularly being floored by Becker’s thinking, I am also enamored of his writing. I particularly enjoy his use of parentheticals and exclamation points. (It conveys both passion and informality!)