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Answer to the Freakonomics Quiz: What Gary Becker Says Economics Is All About

Last week, I offered up a quiz asking what Gary Becker thought the only purpose of economics was. His answer was so surprising to me, that just to make sure I had it right, I asked him again after I made the post.
He confirmed his answer, and said that it is the same answer he would have given 50 years ago when he started studying economics.
As surprising as the answer was to me, commenter #24, Abe, got it right when he guessed, “to understand and alleviate poverty.” Congratulations to Abe.
What’s surprising about Becker’s comment — and I believe he is telling the truth and not just being politically correct when he says helping the poor is the point of economics, because he never worries about political correctness — is that he is a staunch Republican and a firm believer in markets. There is no reason why that belief in markets can’t go hand in hand with really wanting to help the poor, it just usually doesn’t.
In a market economy, there are inevitably winners and losers. So most folks who worry about the poor are turned off by markets, believing that some other system could do a better job for the worst off. Becker, however, would argue that markets, especially when combined with access to good education, are the best shot the poor have.
If you think globally, the poorest countries in the world stand to gain the most by the adoption of modern technologies like vaccines, the development of new strains of crops, easier access to information, etc. Lack of education, isolation, and bad governments slow the process, but faced with the choices of a) grinding out a subsistence-based economy forever, or b) inventing these things themselves, or c) living in a world in which these advances have already been made and now just have to be adopted, option “c” has to be the best scenario for developing countries.