The meaning and impact of the Coase Theorem
Recent years have seen a surge in scholarship that critically evaluates the origins and impact of the law and economics movement. Out of the many theoretical bedrocks of the movement, the Coase Theorem is one of the most significant. Stemming from Ronald Coase's 1960 paper "The Problem of Social Cost," the theorem itself was coined by George Stigler in his 1966 book The Theory of Price. (Click here for a very simple primer on the theorem as it is generally taught.)
A 1999 paper by STEVEN MEDEMA—an economist and historian who has written extensively on Coase and his legacy—looks at the role that the Coase theorem has played in the law and economics movement:
In spite of the often heavily ideological overtones of the Coase theorem debate, the theorem is simply a positive proposition, stating that under certain conditions a particular result will follow. Yet, the Coase theorem has been assailed from the left (as conservative dogma) and from the right (as liberal dogma); its moral, philosophical, and political underpinnings have been called into question; its logic, applicability, and empirical content have been both trashed and defended; it has been hailed as offering a new way to conceptualize law and legal culture and attacked as anathema to the traditional common law process. The present essay will attempt to explain how and why the Coase theorem quickly evolved from a debunking fiction to the basis of one of the most successful branches of applied economics in the last part of this century.
Link to the paper.
- Ronald Coase's seminal paper "The Problem of Social Cost." Link. And an interview with Coase from 1997, in which he says: "I think the success of the Coase Theorem—because it’s discussed all over the place—is an interesting illustration of what’s wrong with economics. If you read 'The Problem of Social Cost,' it occupies perhaps four pages. It’s useful because you can show the type of contracts that would have to be made in order to have an efficient economic system. But then you have to introduce the obstacles to doing it. Then you see how the system actually works." Link.
- A 1998 paper by Deirdre McCloskey examines the legacy of the theorem: "Something like a dozen people in the world understand that the 'Coase' theorem is not the Coase theorem. One of this select group is Ronald Coase himself, so I suspect we blessed few are right." Link.
- A post by Steven Medema on VoxEU treats Coase's legacy and the distance between his own views and the school of thought which adopted the theorem bearing his name. Link. Another paper by Medema examines the Coase Theorem on its sixtieth anniversary. Link.
- Robin Hahnel and Kristen Sheeran provide an "internal critique" of the theorem, arguing that even under optimal conditions—low transaction costs and well-defined property rights—it generates perverse incentives. Link.
- A 2017 paper by Dina Waked—"Sense and Nonsense of the Economic Analysis of Tort Law"—situates the law and economics school (and its invocation of Coase) alongside earlier and more recent alternatives, including the early institutionalists. Link.