I learned this week-end that Gary Becker had died. It's a testament to his significance that general philosophy blogs mentioned this fact (here and here in respectful fasfion). Outside of economics his work is known for two (very) connected features: (a) he is one of the Godfathers of what has become known as neo-Liberalism and the technocratic conception of Politics (recall my post on Becker). As Kieran Healy reminds us, Foucault was prescient and insightful about all of this (see also here). (b) The University of Chicago obituary captures another aspect of his significance by claiming that "He crossed disciplinary boundaries to apply core economic tenets—maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, stable preferences, and rational choice—to subjects thought to be the domain of sociology, psychology, law, and other fields." That is to say, Becker's work is what people had in mind when they speak of 'economic imperialism.' (Wikipedia's brief entry on the topic is full of references to Becker.) As the distinguished philosopher of economics, Uskali Mäki. writes, "as paradigmatic examples of the trend, one may cite works such as Gary Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination (1957)..." (he also mentions Becker’s (1981) A Treatise on the Family as another such paradigmatic work; Mäki's piece is very fair to Becker and worth re-reading.) And, again, Healy's selections show that Foucault also has understood this.
In the passages quoted by Healy, Foucault calls attention to the significance of a essay by Robbins in preparing the conceptual ground for Becker's project (on Robbins, recall, here, and here.) Interestingly enough, one influential observer-participant-critic, discerned Foucault's point, but with a twist--it's people attacking Robbins that reveal the imperialistic inclinations of economics! Here's Talcott Parsons, writing, as he announces in the first sentence, as "a sociologist, not an economist" in 1934 in The Quarterly Journal of Economics (while criticizing Souter's criticism of Robbins): this "leads him [Souter] into an "economic imperialism" (to borrow his own phrase), which results not only in enriching these neighboring "countries," [that is in Parson's terms, "neighboring sciences"--ES] which of course it does, but in putting some of them into a strait jacket of "economic" categories which is illsuited to their own conditions." (512; I thank Rachel McKinnon for helping me get my hands on a copy of this article.)
Now, in his piece, Parsons traces the logic of economic imperialism back to Alfred Marshall (522). The connection to Marshall is not a coincidence because Marshall was revered by Becker's teacher, Milton Friedman, who wrote a major piece on Marshall. (On Marshall, see also here.)* Parsons sumps up his own argument:
the real result of Souter's empiricism, like Marshall's, is the tendency to attempt to extend " economic" categories to cover the whole of concrete life. This is the objectionable "economic imperialism" of which I spoke above. If pushed far enough it will result in the same kind of harmful lack of perspective of which Marshall was guilty. (He thought of India simply as a "backward country" for instance.) It is a tendency against which the sociologist, as well as other scientists, must stand up and fight for his scientific life. It is a tendency against which the sociologist, as well as other scientists, must stand up and fight for his scientific life. (Parsons, 535)