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Economic Insights

Ronald Coase
One of my favorite philosophers—Yogi
Berra—once said “You can observe a lot just
by watching.” Economist Ronald Coase did
just that, and it earned him a Nobel Prize.
Coase has always asked economists to be keen
observers, trying to understand why things
operate as they do, rather than pure theoreticians, wondering why the world doesn’t conform to their theoretical models of reality. And
he led the way by observing industrial organizations and structures up close before theorizing about them.
Karl Marx said philosophy had explained the world and now it was necessary to
change it. Coase’s writings imply that this approach is backwards. First observe the world,
he says, and then explain it. Having done so,
we learn that in many cases it is not necessary
to change it. Adam Smith expressed this fundamental insight about existing institutions
and market structures with his famous
metaphor of the invisible hand. And no economist has a better claim to having furthered
this key lesson than the one we recognize with
this edition of Economic Insights, a man whose
observations changed economics forever.
— Bob McTeer
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

Ronald Harry Coase was born in a
London suburb in 1910. He was educated at the London School of Economics from 1929 through 1932, studying industrial law with the intention of
becoming a lawyer. But that changed
after his exposure to Professor of Commerce Arnold Plant, who came to the
London School of Economics from a
position in Cape Town, South Africa, in
1930. Plant’s influence put Coase firmly
on the road to becoming an economist
and also shaped his attitude that economic theory is fine as long as it’s
grounded in reality.
During 1931–32, Coase traveled to
the United States on a scholarship to
study the structure of American industry. This study became the basis for
Coase’s lifetime fascination with industrial organization and his later work on
the nature of firms and their costs.
After leaving the London School of
Economics, Coase held a series of teaching positions: at the Dundee School of
Economics and Commerce (1932–34),
the University of Liverpool (1934–35)
and the London School of Economics
(1935–51). Immigrating to the United
States in 1951, Coase taught first at the
University of Buffalo, then joined the
faculty of the University of Virginia in
1959. He moved to the University of Chicago in 1964, remaining there until 1982.
He was awarded the Nobel Memorial
Prize in Economic Sciences in 1991.
Coase’s central contributions to
modern economic theory are recorded in
two seminal articles published in the
University of Chicago’s Journal of Law
and Economics—“The Federal Communications Commission” (1959) and “The
Problem of Social Cost” (1960)—as well
as in an earlier article, “The Nature of the

University of Chicago News Office

The Nature of Firms and Their Costs

Ronald Coase
Firm,” published in Economica (1937). In
“The Nature of the Firm,” Coase explained that firms exist because they reduce the transaction costs that emerge
during production and exchange, capturing efficiencies that individuals cannot.
Coase was heavily influenced by
Frank Knight’s monumental Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit and Philip Wicksteed’s The Common Sense of Political
Economy. The former inspired his interest in institutions and the structure of
productive process. The latter led him
to study constrained optimization problems, that is, choices that are constrained by costs, information, market
prices and uncertainty.1
In his article about the Federal Communications Commission, Coase showed
economists the crucial importance of institutional property rights and how their
presence or absence influences the efficient allocation of scarce resources. In
that paper, Coase first put forward what
has come to be known as the Coase

Why Do Firms Exist?
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–co-ordinator, who directs production. It is clear that these are alternative methods of co-ordinating 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, well might we ask, Why is there any
In view of the fact that while economists treat the price mechanism as a co-ordinating instrument,
they also admit the co-ordinating function of the “entrepreneur,” it is surely important to inquire why
co-ordination is the work of the price mechanism in one case and of the entrepreneur in another. The
purpose of this paper is to bridge what appears to be a gap in economic theory between the assumption (made for some purposes) that resources are allocated by means of the price mechanism and the
assumption (made for other purposes) that this allocation is dependent on the entrepreneur–co-ordinator. We have to explain the basis on which, in practice, this choice between alternatives is effected….
The main reason why it is profitable to establish a firm would seem to be that there is a cost of
using the price mechanism. The most obvious cost of “organizing” production through the price mechanism is that of discovering what the relevant prices are. The cost may be reduced but it will not be
eliminated by the emergence of specialists who will sell this information. The costs of negotiating and
concluding a separate contract for each exchange transaction which takes place on a market must also
be taken into account. Again, in certain markets, e.g., produce exchanges, a technique is devised for
minimizing these contract costs; but they are not eliminated. It is true that contracts are not eliminated
when there is a firm but they are greatly reduced. A factor of production (or the owner thereof) does
not have to make a series of contracts with the factors with whom he is co-operating within the firm,
as would be necessary, of course, if this co-operation were a direct result of the working of the price
We may sum up this section of the argument by saying that the operation of a market costs something and by forming an organization and allowing some authority (an “entrepreneur”) to direct the
resources, certain marketing costs are saved. The entrepreneur has to carry out his function at less
cost, taking into account the fact that he may get factors of production at a lower price than the market transactions which he supersedes, because it is always possible to revert to the open market if he
fails to do this. ■
— “The Nature of the Firm,” 388–92

Theorem, the idea that in the absence
of transaction costs, any initial property
rights arrangement leads to an economically efficient outcome.
This stance was so counterintuitive
that the journal editors asked Coase to
retract or modify it. Coase refused to
modify the article but did agree to defend himself at a history-making meeting at journal editor Aaron Director’s
home in Chicago. Also present and
ready to question Coase were Rueben
Kessel, Milton Friedman, Martin Bailey,
Arnold Harberger, Gregg Lewis, John
McGee, Lloyd Mints and George Stigler,
as formidably skeptical an audience as
any economic theorist has probably
ever faced. At the end of that evening,
not only was Coase still standing, but
the participants had conceded his

essential point. That point was systematically reiterated in one of the mostcited economics articles ever published,
“The Problem of Social Cost” (1960).
Using examples from English common law, Coase methodically demonstrates that regulatory interventions can,
under certain conditions, lead to less
economically efficient outcomes than
markets alone would create. This contrasts with the contention A. C. Pigou
first put forth in The Economics of Welfare (1920)—that government regulation enhances efficiency by correcting
for claimed imperfections, which Pigou
called market failures.
Coase gets his results with an assumption of zero transaction costs, but
his analysis rests also on a particular
view of torts quite different from Pigou’s.

What Determines the
Size of the Firm?
Other things being equal, therefore, a firm
will tend to be larger:
(a) the less the costs of organizing
and the slower these costs rise
with an increase in the transactions organized;
(b) the less likely the entrepreneur is
to make mistakes and the smaller the increase in mistakes with
an increase in the transactions
(c) the greater the lowering (or the
less the rise) in the supply price
of factors of production to firms
of larger size.
Apart from variations in the supply price
of factors of production to firms of different
sizes, it would appear that the costs of organizing and the losses through mistakes will
increase with an increase in the spatial distribution of the transactions organized, in the dissimilarity of the transactions, and in the probability of changes in the relevant prices. As more
transactions are organized by an entrepreneur,
it would appear that the transactions would
tend to be either different in kind or in different
places. This furnishes an additional reason why
efficiency will tend to decrease as the firm gets
larger. Inventions which tend to bring factors of
production nearer together, by lessening spatial distribution, tend to increase the size of the
firm. Changes like the telephone and the telegraph which tend to reduce the cost of organizing spatially will tend to increase the size of
the firm. All changes which improve managerial technique will tend to increase the size of the
firm. ■
— “The Nature of the Firm,” 396 – 97

In the Pigouvian case, party A harms
party B by engaging in trades with party
C (and/or D …n). It is a clear case of
black and white hats, for party B is seen
as an innocent bystander who is suffering a negative externality (cost) from
party A’s action(s). For Coase, a tort
occurs only because there are conflicts
over resource use and all parties can
harm each other. Thus, to stop party A
from harming party B is akin to harming party A. In this Coasian world, the
assignment of property rights does not
matter in terms of the efficient eco-

A New Approach to Understanding Social Costs
This paper is concerned with those actions
of business firms which have harmful effects on
others. The standard example is that of a factory,
the smoke from which has harmful effects on those
occupying neighboring properties. The economic
analysis of such a situation has usually proceeded in terms of a divergence between the private
and social product of the factory, in which economists have largely followed the treatment of
Pigou in The Economics of Welfare. The conclusions
to which this kind of analysis seems to have led
most economists is that it would be desirable to
make the owner of the factory liable for damage
caused to those injured by the smoke; or to place
a tax on the factory owner varying with the
amount of smoke produced and equivalent in
money terms to the damage it would cause; or,
finally, to exclude the factory from residential
districts (and presumably from other areas in
which the emission of smoke would have harmful effects on others). It is my contention that the
suggested courses of action are inappropriate in
that they lead to results which are not necessarily, or even usually, desirable.
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
be to 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
is to avoid the more serious harm…(An) example is afforded by the problem of straying cattle
which destroy crops on neighboring land. If it is

inevitable that some cattle will stray, an increase in
the supply of meat can only be obtained at the
expense of a decrease in the supply of crops. The
nature of the choice is clear: meat or crops. What
answer should be given is, of course, not clear unless we know the value of what is obtained as well
as the value of what is sacrificed to obtain it….
The problem which we face in dealing with
actions which have harmful effects is not simply
one of restraining those responsible for them. What
has to be decided is whether the gain from preventing the harm is greater than the loss which would
be suffered elsewhere as a result of stopping the
action which produced the harm. In a world in
which there are costs of rearranging the rights established by the legal system, the courts, in cases
relating to nuisance, are, in effect, making a decision on the economic problem and determining
how resources are to be employed. It was argued
that the courts are conscious of this and that they
often make, although not always in a very explicit
fashion, a comparison between what would be
gained and what lost by preventing actions which
have harmful effects. But the delimitation of rights
is also the result of statutory enactments. Here we
also find evidence of an appreciation of the reciprocal nature of the problem. While statutory enactments add to the list of nuisances, action is also
taken to legalize what would otherwise be nuisances under the common law. The kind of situation which economists are prone to consider as requiring corrective governmental action is, in fact,
often the result of governmental action. Such action
is not necessarily unwise. But there is a real danger that extensive governmental intervention in the
economic system may lead to the protection of those
responsible for harmful effects being carried too

It is my belief that the failure of economists
to reach correct conclusions about the treatment
of harmful effects cannot be ascribed simply to a
few slips in analysis. It stems from basic defects
in the current approach to problems of welfare
economics. What is needed is a change of
approach. Analysis in terms of divergences
between private and social products concentrates attention on particular deficiencies in the
system and tends to nourish the belief that any
measure which will remove the deficiency is necessarily desirable. It diverts attention from those
other changes in the system which are inevitably
associated with the corrective measure, changes
which may well produce more harm than the
original deficiency….
It would clearly be desirable if the only
actions performed were those in which what was
gained was worth more than what was lost. But
in choosing among social arrangements within
the context of which individual decisions are
made, we have to bear in mind that a change in
the existing system which will lead to an
improvement in some decisions may well lead to
a worsening in others. Furthermore, we have to
take into account the costs involved in operating
the various social arrangements (whether it be
the working of a market or of a governmental
department) as well as the costs involved in
moving to a new system. In devising and choosing among social arrangements we should have
regard for the total effect. This, above all, is the
change in approach which I am advocating. ■

nomic outcome because the parties
will bargain their way to the same outcome regardless of how property rights
are assigned, that is, regardless of who
gets to sue whom. (See the box titled
“A New Approach to Understanding
Social Cost.”)
Coase’s analysis of the theory and
history of torts, combined with his assumptions about what the legal system
ought to do in cases of conflict over
resource use—maximize economic efficiency and thus societal wealth rather
than punish specific conduct—created
a huge boost for the then-young field
we now call law and economics. It also

created a strong pro-market bias in cases
where prior theorists—most notably
Pigou—had crafted regulatory responses to perceived examples of market
After his successful presentation to
Chicago’s top social theorists, Coase was
offered a position at the University of
Chicago, where he edited the Journal
of Law and Economics from 1964 to
1982. Under his editorship, the journal
became one of the economics profession’s most influential forums. He was
the first president of the International
Society for New Institutional Economics, which was founded in 1996, and he

remains Clifton R. Musser Professor
Emeritus at Chicago’s law school.
Coase’s study of positive transaction costs in economic exchange led
him, and by extension the entire economics field, to a remarkable conclusion:

— “The Problem of Social Cost,”
9 5–96, 132 – 33, 153, 155 – 56

I explained in “The Problem of Social
Cost” that what are traded on the market are not, as is often supposed by economists, physical entities but the rights
to perform certain actions, and the
rights which individuals possess are
established by the legal system.2

For our understanding of why firms
exist, why institutions have evolved as

How Much Government Intervention is Appropriate?
What is the general view that I will be
examining? It is that, in the market for goods,
government regulation is desirable whereas, in
the market for ideas, government regulation is
undesirable and should be strictly limited. In the
market for goods, the government is commonly
regarded as competent to regulate and properly
motivated. Consumers lack the ability to make
the appropriate choices. Producers often exercise
monopolistic power and, in any case, without
some form of government intervention, would not
act in a way which promotes the public interest.
In the market for ideas, the position is very different. The government, if it attempted to regulate, would be inefficient and its motives would,
in general, be bad, so that, even if it were successful in achieving what it wanted to accomplish,
the results would be undesirable. Consumers, on
the other hand, if left free, exercise a fine discrimination in choosing between the alternative
views placed before them, while producers,
whether economically powerful or weak, who are
found to be so unscrupulous in their behavior in
other markets, can be trusted to act in the public
interest, whether they publish or work for the New
York Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Columbia
Broadcasting System. Politicians, whose actions
sometimes pain us, are in their utterances beyond
reproach. It is an odd feature of this attitude that
commercial advertising, which is often merely an
expression of opinion and might, therefore, be
thought to be protected by the First Amendment,
is considered to be part of the market for goods.
The result is that government action is regarded
as desirable to regulate (or even suppress) the
expression of an opinion in an advertisement
which, if expressed in a book or article, would be

they have and how this shapes public
policy, we owe a large debt to Ronald
Coase. ■
— Robert L. Formaini
Thomas F. Siems

completely beyond the reach of government regulation….
My argument is that we should use the
same approach for all markets when deciding on
public policy. In fact, if we do this and use for the
market for ideas the same approach which has
commended itself to economists for the market
for goods, it is apparent that the case for government intervention in the market for ideas is
much stronger than it is, in general, in the market for goods….
[C]onsider the question of consumer ignorance which is commonly thought to be a justification for government intervention. It is hard to
believe that the general public is in a better position to evaluate competing views on economic and
social policy than to choose between different
kinds of food. Yet there is support for regulation in
the one case but not in the other. Or consider the
question of preventing fraud, for which government intervention is commonly advocated. It
would be difficult to deny that newspaper articles
and the speeches of politicians contain a large
number of false and misleading statements—indeed, sometimes they seem to consist of little
else. Government action to control false and misleading advertising is considered highly desirable. Yet a proposal to set up a Federal Press
Commission or a Federal Political Commission
modeled on the Federal Trade Commission
would be dismissed out of hand. ■
—“The Economics of the First Amendment:
The Market for Goods and
the Market for Ideas,”
384 – 85, 389 – 90

Coase, Ronald H. (1937), “The Nature of the
Firm,” Economica 4 (November): 386 – 405.

Theories and Reality:
Making the Data Talk
Economists, or at any rate enough of
them, do not wait to discover whether a theory’s predictions are accurate before making
up their minds. Given that this is so, what part
does testing a theory’s predictions play in economics? First of all, it very often plays either
no part or a very minor part….
I remarked earlier on the tendency of
economists to get the result their theory tells
them to expect. In a talk I gave at the University
of Virginia in the early 1960s, … I said that if
you torture that data enough, nature will
always confess, a saying which, in a somewhat
altered form, has taken its place in the statistical literature. Kuhn puts the point more elegantly and makes the process sound more like
a seduction: “nature undoubtedly responds to
the theoretical predispositions with which she
is approached by the measuring scientist.” ■
— “How Should Economists Choose?”
72, 74

——— (1988), “The Problem of Social Cost,”
in The Firm, the Market, and the Law
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 5–156,
orig. pub. 1960.
——— (1991), “The Institutional Structure of
Production,” Nobel Prize Lecture to the
Memory of Alfred Nobel, December 9, 1991,
——— (1994), Essays on Economics and
Economists (Chicago: University of Chicago

——— (1959), “The Federal Communications
Commission,” Journal of Law and Economics 2
(October): 1 – 40.

Senior Economists


Cheung (1987).
Coase (1991).

Sources and Suggested Reading
Cheung, Steven N. S. (1987), “Ronald Harry
Coase,” in The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of
Economics, vol. 1, ed. John Eatwell, Murray
Milgate and Peter Newman (New York: Stockton
Press), 455 – 57.

——— (1974), “The Economics of the First
Amendment: The Market for Goods and the
Market for Ideas,” American Economic Review
64 (May): 384 – 91.
——— (1988), “How Should Economists
Choose?” in Ideas, Their Origins, and Their
Consequences: Lectures to Commemorate the
Life and Work of G. Warren Nutter
(Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise
Institute for Public Policy Research) 57 – 79.

Economic Insights is a publication of the
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The views
expressed are those of the authors and should
not be attributed to the Federal Reserve System.
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