Coase in theory and Coase in practice

While out and about yesterday, I read a little book from the IEA that I’d only dipped into before, , edited by Cento Veljanovski. It’s a useful introduction to Coase (although he wrote so clearly that there’s no excuse for not tackling his classic papers, The Nature of the Firm and The Problem of Social Cost.)

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The book has chapters providing a biography and a general overview, and then several looking at the applications of Coaseian thinking in different areas such as water, environmental protection, public goods provision, financial markets and even the sharing economy. It starts with the Coase theorem: that when property rights are clearly assigned and there are no transactions costs (such as those involved in acquiring information, negotiating, monitoring compliance etc), then there are no externalities leading to a divergence between private and social costs: the parties involved will negotiate their way to the efficient outcome. ‘Externalities’ are symmetric, he argued: if you claim a right to clean air, you are costing me the opportunity to pollute. Who compensates whom will depend how the property rights are assigned. If you indeed have your clean air right, I will have to bargain with you to pay you for the pollution; if I have the right to produce emissions, you will have to pay me to desist.

Coase made it clear he took the existence of transaction costs very seriously, and argued that every situation had to be carefully assessed to determine the most welfare-enhancing course of action. He certainly challenged the market failure framework established by Pigou, still used to consider the rationale for public policy interventions. Coase has often been taken to say more generally that it’s always best to leave it to the market, because people can bargain their way to solutions – and that is certainly the interpretation this volume puts on him, as you would perhaps expect from the IEA.

I think one has instead to take Coase at face value, and in each situation look at the incentives people face and the transaction costs involved in private bargaining and in the public sector alike – this determined empiricism is why I like Coase so much. As the essay here by Stephen Davies notes: “The boundaries of what is possible in this regard have shifted over time.” The useful bibliography of Coase’s work shows how seriously he took his own conclusion that you have to look in detail at each industry, its history and specificities before pontificating; as is well known, he described anything else as ‘blackboard economics’. Indeed, the people who arguably took him most seriously were the later Nobel winners, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, who each in their won way focused on the detail of the institutions that exist to co-ordinate individual actions.

In a nice case study, Davies looks at how turnpike roads – toll roads- were the common means to expand Britain’s main road network in the late 18th and early 19th century. They were an example of club goods – non-rival in consumption, but excludable. Later of course in the UK roads came to be considered a pure public good to be provided by the state. Now we have one toll motorway, and some talk of more. Other countries, including statist France, have many toll roads. There is no right answer.

The book ends with a chapter on the sharing economy, a very interesting essay on the implications of a large decline in certain transactions costs.

There won’t be much here that is new to people who are already familiar with Coase, but – with the caution about its free market slant – it is a clear and accessible guide for students. And available free online as a pdf.

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