University of Chicago announcement:
Ronald H. Coase helped create the field of law and economics, through groundbreaking scholarship that earned him the 1991 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics and through his far-reaching influence as a journal editor.
Coase, who spent most of his academic career at the University of Chicago Law School, died at the age of 102 on Sept. 2 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago. He was the oldest living Nobel laureate, according to the Nobel Foundation.
Coase, the Clifton R. Musser Professor Emeritus of Economics, is best known for his 1937 paper, “The Nature of the Firm,” which offered groundbreaking insights about why firms exist and established the field of transaction cost economics, and “The Problem of Social Cost,” published in 1960, which is widely considered to be the seminal work in the field of law and economics. The latter set out what is now known as the Coase Theorem, which holds that under conditions of perfect competition, private and social costs are equal.
I was never lucky enough to meet Coase, but his work enormously impacted my understanding of how corporations work and why they exist. So I borrow here from a 2003 post, in which I reviewed Coase's book The Firm, the Market, and the Law, which included reprints of his major articles:
This is principally a collection of Coase's seminal works, although it does contain some useful new material. In particular, the opening chapter is entirely new and shows how a consistent theory of firms and markets, as well as a unique conception of economics and economically-oriented scholarship, runs through Coase's work from the 1930s to the late 1980s (when the book was published).
Coase is best known for two seminal articles. The earlier article "The Theory of the Firm" is the seminal work on the so-called nexus of contracts theory of the firm, as well as an early source for the transaction cost branch of the New Institutional Economics. The nexus of contracts model treats the firm not as an entity, but as an aggregate of various inputs acting together to produce goods or services. Employees provide labor. Creditors provide debt capital. Shareholders initially provide equity capital and subsequently bear the risk of losses and monitor the performance of management. Management monitors the performance of employees and coordinates the activities of all the firm's inputs. The firm is simply a legal fiction representing the complex set of contractual relationships between these inputs. Besides emphasizing the importance of examining the various contracts making up the firm, however, Coase's fundamental insight was that the contractual nature of the firm does not preclude an element of command and control absent from market transactions. If a corporate employee moves from department Y to department X he does so not because of change in relative prices, but because he is ordered to do so. In other words, markets allocate resources via the price mechanism but firms allocate resources via authoritative direction. The set of contracts making up the firm consists in very large measure of implicit agreements, which by definition are both incomplete and unenforceable. Under conditions of uncertainty and complexity, the firm's many constituencies cannot execute a complete contract, so that many decisions must be left for later contractual rewrites imposed by fiat. It is precisely the unenforceability of implicit corporate contracts that makes it possible for the central decisionmaker to rewrite them more-or-less freely. The parties to the corporate contract presumably accept this consequence of relying on implicit contracts because the resulting reduction in transaction costs benefits them all.
Even better known, and even more central to transaction cost economics, however, is Coase's later article "The Problem of Social Cost," which also is reprinted in full here. In that article, Coase laid a critical foundation of modern law and economics - the so-called Coase theorem. The Coase theorem has been formulated in various ways, but one useful statement might be that: "When the parties can bargain successfully, the initial allocation of legal rights does not matter." Suppose a steam locomotive drives by a field of wheat. Sparks from the engine set crops on fire. Should the railroad company be liable? In a world of zero transaction costs, the initial assignment of rights is irrelevant. If the legal rule we choose is inefficient, the parties can bargain around it. Put another way, according to the Coase theorem, rights will be acquired by those who value them most highly, which creates an incentive to discover and implement transaction cost minimizing governance forms.
The Coase theorem has been widely criticized. The second major set of new material in this book is a chapter entitled "Notes on the Problem of Social Cost," in which Coase answers the more serious criticisms. That essay provides a useful intellectual history of the Coase theorem, as well as a trenchant defense of its main claims. One of the less-well informed criticisms of Coase is that he assumes transaction costs are zero. He does not, as this new essay makes clear. Indeed, as Coase points out, the interesting cases are those in which transactions costs are non-zero. In a world of positive transaction costs, however, the parties may not be able to bargain. This is likely to be true in our example. The railroad travels past the property of many landowners, who put their property to differing uses and put differing values on those uses. Negotiating an optimal solution will all of those owners would be, at best, time consuming and onerous. Hence, the allocation of legal rights becomes quite important.