Ellickson’s “Case for Coase”

One of my favorite articles about the work of Ronald Coase is Robert Ellickson’s “The Case for Coase and Against Coaseanism.” ┬áHere is a portion of the introduction:

Poor Ronald Coase. In an introductory essay to a recently published collection of his articles, Coase laments his lack of influence among economists. “My point of view has not in general commanded assent, nor has my argument, for the most part, been understood.”‘ One can imagine the muttering that Coase’s plaint will provoke in the university towns across America. “Wait a minute, buster,” will grouse the professors. “It must be tough when you’ve merely written the most cited article in the legal literature and when Yale has been bothering you with the offer of an honorary degree. Listen up and we’ll tell you some stories about scholarship that
has gone underappreciated.”

. . . Coase’s name is consistently attached to propositions that he has explicitly repudiated. Predictions identified as “Coasean” are predictions that Coase would never make. The “Coasean world” is not only not Coase’s world but, ironically, is more like the world of the economic theorists that Coase has attacked. . . . Just as some believe Marx would complain of what is currently done in the name of Marxism, Coase has reason to be appalled at the emerging contours of “Coaseanism.”

I think part of the problem that Ellickson identifies comes from the way “The Problem of Social Cost” is routinely excerpted in textbooks to emphasize the prelude (the zero transaction cost world) and ignore the primary substance of the article.

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