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An introduction to the ideas of Ronald Coase

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  • R. H. Coase (1910–2013), a leading modern figure in the classical liberal tradition, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991 for his analysis of the significance of transaction costs and property rights for the functioning of the economy.

  • Before Coase’s work in the 1930s, there was no real understanding of the relation between the theory of the firm and the theory of markets. Coase showed that the size and structure of firms, and the location of the border between internal exchange within the firm and external exchange through markets, are systematically related to the costs of transactions.

  • These transaction costs, which Coase termed ‘costs of using the price mechanism’, include search and information costs (those involved in finding business partners, rather than having to produce your own inputs), bargaining costs (which rise sharply with the number of contractual partners) and enforcement costs (which, in the absence of a strong and effective legal framework, depend largely on trust in partners). When these costs alter dramatically, for example, as a result of introducing innovative technology, we can expect substantial alterations in firm and market structures.

  • Coase was a pioneer in the modern analysis of environmental issues. He showed that, with clear property rights and low transactions costs, private solutions to many environmental problems can be achieved without government regulation. Such solutions were logically independent of the initial distribution of property rights. This is highly relevant to a number of modern economic problems which the government currently handles badly, such as land-use planning.

  • His work has had a profound effect on later generations of economists, several of whom themselves won Nobel Prizes. His work on environmental issues, for example, influenced another Nobel Prizewinner in Elinor Ostrom, whose work focused on how common pool resources could be used effectively with minimal government intervention. This is especially relevant to debates about environmental and ecological degradation in forestry, fishing and game animal resources – perhaps particularly in developing economies.

  • Similarly his work on the firm led to the development of the ‘New Industrial Economics’, now associated with Oliver Williamson, which has changed our understanding of issues of economic governance. This is relevant to current concerns over corporate social responsibility.

  • Coase’s editorship of the Journal of Law and Economics over many years did much to stimulate economic analysis of legal institutions, an innovation which has had a major influence on public policy, particularly in the US. It has fed, for instance, into recommendations for accident compensation.

  • Coase’s insights have challenged economists’ assumptions about the nature of public goods, which he demonstrated could often be provided more effectively by various forms of private initiative. He also illuminated such varied topics as the allocation of spectrum bandwith, the regulation of financial institutions and water resource management.

  • Methodologically, Coase was opposed to ‘blackboard economics’ which relied on theory or econometric analysis at the expense of more practical investigation. He favoured careful examination of case studies and the history of industries when analysing economic policy issues.

  • His work retains considerable significance in the twenty-first century. Coase’s analysis of China’s economic advance, published shortly before his death, sheds light on its future prospects, while his transaction cost approach can be argued to explain the new phenomenon of the ‘sharing’ economy which is reshaping businesses and employment. Furthermore his work should continue to be at the forefront of debates surrounding regulation, broadcasting and the environment. If policymakers and the economists who advise them ignore Coase, they are in danger of perpetuating policies which may work ‘in theory’ but do not work effectively in practice.

2015, Readings in Political Economy 4

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