Ronald Coase

British economist and author (1910-2013)

Ronald Harry Coase (December 29, 1910September 2, 2013) was a British economist and the Clifton R. Musser Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Chicago Law School. He received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991.

Ronald Coase at the University of Chicago.
Photo of Ronald Coase from UChicago Law archives.

Quotes edit

  • The traditional approach has tended to obscure the nature of the choice that has to be made. The question is commonly thought of as one in which A inflicts harm on B and what has to be decided is: how should we restrain A? But this is wrong. We are dealing with a problem of a reciprocal nature. To avoid the harm to B would inflict harm on A. The real question that has to be decided is: should A be allowed to harm B or should B be allowed to harm A?
    • "The Problem of Social Cost", in: Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 3. (Oct., 1960)
  • In my view, what is wanted in industrial organization is a direct approach to the problem. This would concentrate on what activities firms undertake, and would endeavor to discover the characteristics of the groupings of activities within firms. Which activities tend to be associated and which do not? The answer may well differ for different kinds of firm.
    • Ronald Coase. (1972) "Industrial Organization: A Proposal for Research"
  • American institutionalists were not theoretical but anti-theoretical.... Without a theory they had nothing to pass on except a mass of descriptive material waiting for a theory, or a fire.
    • Ronald H. Coase (1984). "The New Institutional Economics." Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 140 (March): 299-231; p. 230; As cited in: Malcolm Rutherford (1996), Institutions in Economics: The Old and the New Institutionalism. p. 9
  • Transaction costs were used in the one case to show that if they are not included in the analysis, the firm has no purpose, while in the other I showed, as I thought, that if transaction costs were not introduced into the analysis, for the range of problems considered, the law had no purpose.
    • Ronald H. Coase (1988). "The Nature of the Firm: Influence." Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 4 (No. 1, Spring): 33—47. p. 34; as cited in Eggertsson (1990; xiii)
  • In my youth it was said that what was too silly to be said may be sung. In modern economics it may be put into mathematics.
    • Ronald H. Coase (1988). "Note on the problem of social costs" in: The Firm, the Market, and the Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 185
  • I can't remember [of a good regulation]. Regulation of transport, regulation of agriculture—agriculture is a, zoning is z. You know, you go from a to z, they are all bad. There were so many studies, and the result was quite universal: The effects were bad.
  • If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn't go and look at horses. They'd sit in their studies and say to themselves, "what would I do if I were a horse?"
    • Ronald Coase in speech to the "International Society of New Institutional Economics" the 17 September 1999, Washington DC. He claims he was quoting fellow economist Ely Devons which reportedly said this in a meeting

"The Nature of the Firm" (1937) edit

Ronald Coase "The nature of the firm." Economica 4.16 (1937): 386-405.

  • Outside the firm, price movements direct production, which is co-ordinated through a series of exchange transactions on the market. Within a firm, these market transactions are eliminated and in place of the complicated market structure with exchange transactions is substituted the entrepreneur-coordinator, who directs production. It is clear that these are alternative methods of coordinating production. Yet, having regard to the fact that, if production is regulated by price movements, production could be carried on without any organization at all might we ask, why is there any organization?
    • p. 388
  • A firm consist of the system of relationships which comes into existence when the direction of resources is dependent on an entrepreneur.
    • p. 393
  • Why... are there any market transactions at all? Why not all production carried on by one big firm?... First, as a firm gets larger, there may be decreasing returns to the entrepreneur function, that is, the costs of organizing additional transactions within the firm may rise... Second, it may be that as the transactions which are organized increase, the entrepreneur fails to place the factors of production in the uses where their value is greatest, that is, fails to make the best use of the factors of production... Finally, the supply price of one or more of the factors of production may rise, because the "other advantages" of a small firm are greater than those of a large firm.
    • p. 394-5
  • The question always is, will it pay to bring an extra exchange transaction under the organizing authority? At the margin, the costs of organizing within the firm will be equal either to the costs of organizing in another firm or to the costs involved in leaving the transaction to be “organised” by the price mechanism. Business men will be constantly experimenting, controlling more or less, and in this way equilibrium will be maintained. This gives the position of equilibrium for static analysis.
    • p. 404

"How should economists choose?" (1981) edit

Ronald Coase, "How should economists choose?" Warren Nutter Lecture, 1981

  • But a theory is not like an airline or bus timetable. We are not interested simply in the accuracy of its predictions. A theory also serves as a base for thinking. It helps us to understand what is going on by enabling us to organize our thoughts. Faced with a choice between a theory which predicts well but gives us little insight into how the system works and one which gives us this insight but predicts badly, I would choose the latter, and I am inclined to think that most economists would do the same.
  • If you torture the data enough, nature will always confess.
    • Coase states that he said this in a talk at the University of Virginia in the early 1960s and that this saying, "in a somewhat altered form, has taken its place in the statistical literature."
      • Alternative: "If you torture the data long enough, it will confess."
        • Cited in: Gordon Tullock, "A Comment on Daniel Klein's 'A Plea to Economists Who Favor Liberty'", Eastern Economic Journal, Spring 2001.
    • The phrase "torture the data until it confesses" first appeared in print in Mancur Olson's classic, "The Logic of Collective Action" (1965). Whether Coase had actually oralized the phrase first is immaterial, unless it occurred in some published or attributably recorded form

"The Firm, the Market, and the Law" (1988) edit

Ronald Coase (1988). "The Firm, the Market, and the Law," in The Firm, the Market and the Law (1988)

  • In mainstream economic theory, the firm and the market are, for the most part, assumed to exist and are not themselves the subject of investigation. One result has been that the crucial role of the law in determining the activities carried out by the firm and in the market has been largely ignored.
  • The limit to the size of the firm is set where its costs of organizing a transaction become equal to the cost of carrying it out through the market. This determines what the firm buys, produces, and sells. As the concept of transaction costs is not usually used by economists, it is not surprising that an approach which incorporates it will find some difficulty in getting itself accepted. We can best understand this attitude if we consider not the firm but the market.
  • Markets are institutions that exist to facilitate exchange, that is, they exist in order to reduce the cost of carrying out exchange transactions. In an economic theory which assumes that transaction costs are nonexistent. markets have no function to perform, and it seems perfectly reasonable to develop the theory of exchange by an elaborate analysis of individuals exchanging nuts for apples on the edge of the forest or some similar fanciful example. This analysis certainly shows why there is a gain from trade, but it fails to deal with the factors which determine how much trade there is or what goods are traded.

"The Institutional Structure of Production" (1992) edit

Ronald Coase (1992), "The Institutional Structure of Production" ; Reprinted in: Essays on Economics and Economists (1994)

  • What I have done is to show the importance for the working of the economic system of what may be termed the institutional structure of production.
  • Economists have uncovered the conditions necessary if Adam Smith’s results are to be achieved and where, in the real world, such conditions do not appear to be found, they have proposed changes which are designed to bring them about. It is what one finds in the textbooks. Harold Demsetz has said rightly that what this theory analyses is a system of extreme decentralisation. It has been a great intellectual achievement and it throws light on many aspects of the economic system. But it has not been by any means all gain.
  • What is studied is a system which lives in the minds of economists but not on earth. I have called the result “blackboard economics.” The firm and the market appear by name but they lack any substance. The firm in mainstream economic theory has often been described as a “black box.” And so it is.

Quotes about Ronald Coase edit

  • Writers after Coase have referred to the authority structure of the firm as a "visible hand" that works in combination with Smith's invisible hand. The everyday fact that employers exercise power over their employees — not news to most employees — had been a central theme in Marx's economics, but it was (and generally continues to be) overlooked by most neoclassical economists. Early in his studies Coase noted the similarity between the hierarchical organization of capitalist firms, with their reliance on command relations, and the then-existing system of centralized economic planning in the Communist countries, where production was carried out in accordance with orders from higher authorities and where market competition played little role.
    • Samuel Bowles, Richard Edwards, and Frank Roosevelt. Understanding Capitalism: Competition, Command, and Change (3rd ed., 2005), p. 85
  • In the early 1950s the now-famous British economist Ronald Coase announced his intention of going to the USA, and his colleagues at the LSE, myself included, gave him a farewell dinner. He explained how he became an economist. Not having been taught Latin from an early age, he was precluded from taking an Arts degree. His matriculation maths was not of the standard expected for entry to a science faculty. He found that his choice was narrowed to the taking of a B.Com. degree. 'In this mysterious way', said our honoured guest, 'the shade of Adam Smith beckoned me'. We have every reason to be grateful to the deficiencies in Coase's early education!
    • Sir Alan Peacock, Introduction to David Greenaway and John R. Presley, Pioneers of modern economics in Britain, Vol. 2 (1989)

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