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Ronald Coase
New institutional economics
Birth 29 December 1910 (1910-12-29) (age 99)
Nationality British
Institution University of Chicago
Field Law and economics
Alma mater University of London, London School of Economics
Influenced Oliver E. Williamson
Armen Alchian
Steven N. S. Cheung
Robert Bork
Contributions Coase Theorem
Analysis of transaction costs
Coase conjecture
Awards Nobel Prize in Economics (1991)
Information at IDEAS/RePEc

Ronald Harry Coase (born 29 December 1910) is a British economist and the Clifton R. Musser Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Chicago Law School. After studying with the University of London External Programme in 1927-29, Coase entered the London School of Economics where he took courses with Arnold Plant.[1] He received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991.

Coase is best known for two articles in particular: "The Nature of the Firm" (1937), which introduces the concept of transaction costs to explain the nature and limits of firms, and "The Problem of Social Cost" (1960), which suggests that well-defined property rights could overcome the problems of externalities (see Coase Theorem). Coase is also often referred to as the "father" of reform in the policy for allocation of the electromagnetic spectrum, based on his article "The Federal Communications Commission" (1959) where he criticizes spectrum licensing, suggesting property rights as a more efficient method of allocating spectrum to users. Additionally, Coase's transaction costs approach is currently influential in modern organizational theory, where it was reintroduced by Oliver E. Williamson.



Ronald Harry Coase was born in Willesden, a suburb of London, on 29 December 1910. His father was a telegraphist for the post office, as was his mother before marriage. As a child, Coase had a weakness in his legs, for which he was required to wear leg-irons. Due to this problem, he attended the school for physical defects. At the age of 12, he was able to enter the Kilburn Grammar School on scholarship. At Kilburn, Coase completed the first year of his B.Comm degree and then passed on to the University of London[2].

Coase graduated from the London School of Economics with a B.Com. (Econ) in 1932, and earned a higher doctorate from the University of London in 1951. He emigrated to the United States that same year and started work at the University of Buffalo. In 1958 he moved to the University of Virginia. Coase settled at the University of Chicago in 1964 and became the editor of the Journal of Law and Economics. He received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991.

The Nature of the Firm

The Nature of the Firm was a brief but highly influential essay in which Coase tries to explain why the economy is populated by a number of business firms, instead of consisting exclusively of a multitude of independent, self-employed people who contract with one another. Given that "production could be carried on without any organization [that is, firms] at all", Coase asks, why and under what conditions should we expect firms to emerge?

Since modern firms can only emerge when an entrepreneur of some sort begins to hire people, Coase's analysis proceeds by considering the conditions under which it makes sense for an entrepreneur to seek hired help instead of contracting out for some particular task.

The traditional economic theory of the time suggested that, because the market is "efficient" (that is, those who are best at providing each good or service most cheaply are already doing so), it should always be cheaper to contract out than to hire.

Coase noted, however, that there are a number of transaction costs to using the market; the cost of obtaining a good or service via the market is actually more than just the price of the good. Other costs, including search and information costs, bargaining costs, keeping trade secrets, and policing and enforcement costs, can all potentially add to the cost of procuring something with a firm. This suggests that firms will arise when they can arrange to produce what they need internally and somehow avoid these costs.

There is a natural limit to what can be produced internally, however. Coase notices a "decreasing returns to the entrepreneur function", including increasing overhead costs and increasing propensity for an overwhelmed manager to make mistakes in resource allocation. This is a countervailing cost to the use of the firm.

Coase argues that the size of a firm (as measured by how many contractual relations are "internal" to the firm and how many "external") is a result of finding an optimal balance between the competing tendencies of the costs outlined above. In general, making the firm larger will initially be advantageous, but the decreasing returns indicated above will eventually kick in, preventing the firm from growing indefinitely.

Other things being equal, therefore, a firm will tend to be larger:

  • the less the costs of organizing and the slower these costs rise with an increase in the transactions organized.
  • the less likely the entrepreneur is to make mistakes and the smaller the increase in mistakes with an increase in the transactions organized.
  • the greater the lowering (or the less the rise) in the supply price of factors of production to firms of larger size.

The first two costs will increase with the spatial distribution of the transactions organized and the dissimilarity of the transactions. This explains why firms tend to either be in different geographic locations or to perform different functions. Additionally, technology changes that mitigate the cost of organizing transactions across space will cause firms to be larger—the advent of the telephone and cheap air travel, for example, would be expected to increase the size of firms.

Coase does not consider non-contractual relationships, as between friends or family.

The Problem of Social Cost

Published in the Journal of Law and Economics in 1960, while Coase was a member of the Economics department at the University of Virginia, "The Problem of Social Cost" provided the key insight that it is unclear where the blame for externalities lies. The example he gave was of a rancher whose cattle stray onto the cropland of his neighbour. If the rancher is made to restrict his cattle, he is harmed just as the farmer is if the cattle remain unrestrained.

Coase argued that without transaction costs it is economically irrelevant who is assigned initial property rights; the rancher and farmer will work out an agreement about whether to restrict the cattle or not based on the economic efficiency of doing so. Property rights allocation will hence matter only in determining distribution.

With sufficient transaction costs however, initial property rights will have a non-trivial effect. From the point of view of economic efficiency, property rights should be assigned such that the owner of the rights wants to take the economically efficient action. To elaborate, if it is efficient not to restrict the cattle, the rancher should be given the rights (so that cattle can move about freely), whereas if it is efficient to restrict the cattle, the farmer should be given the rights over the movement of the cattle (so the cattle are restricted).

This seminal argument forms the basis of the famous Coase Theorem as labeled by George Stigler.

Critique: Coase's idea does not defend property rights. Apply his idea about property rights to this idea: A scientist steals a pair of reading glasses from a hairdresser. While the hairdresser would have used the glasses for reading People Magazine, the scientist would use them for reading his research and notes so that he can continue his work on a cure for cancer. The Hairdresser misses her glasses and takes the scientist to court. Coase essentially argues that the judge should decide in favor of the scientist, even though he has acted in clear violation of the property rights of the hairdresser. Why? Because "from the point of view of economic efficiency, property rights should be assigned such that the owner of the rights wants to take the (most) economically efficient action". In other words: What decision by the judge will benefit society the most in terms of overall wellbeing and not in terms of respecting property rights?

Coase Conjecture

Another important contribution of Coase is the Coase Conjecture: an informal argument that durable-goods monopolists do not have market power because they are unable to commit to not lowering their prices in future periods.

The Ronald Coase Institute

Coase is research advisor to the Ronald Coase Institute, an organization that seeks to build the study of markets, with particular support for researchers from underdeveloped countries.


Coase coined the well known, but often misquoted adage "If you torture the data long enough, it will confess."[3]

Selected publications

See also


  1. ^ Ronald Coase. "Nobel Prize Autobiography," 1991
  2. ^ Breit, William and Barry T. Hirsch. Lives of the Laureates, 4th ed. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2004.
  3. ^ Gordon Tullock, "A Comment on Daniel Klein's 'A Plea to Economists Who Favor Liberty'", Eastern Economic Journal, Spring 2001, note 2 (Text: "As Ronald Coase says, 'if you torture the data long enough it will confess'." Note: "I have heard him say this several times. So far as I know he has never published it.")

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Ronald Harry Coase (born December 29, 1910) is a British economist and the Clifton R. Musser Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Chicago Law School.


About state regulation :

  • "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", in Reason, january 1997 (read online)
  • "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 Coase. (1988) The firm, the market and the law. Chicago London: The University of Chicago press.
      • Chapter 6. A remark on "The problem of social cost". Last sentence.

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