On Ronald Coase as an Economic Historian?

Can we consider Ronald Coase as an economic historian? Most economists or social scientists that read this blog must appreciate Coase largely for his Nature of the Firm and the Problem of Social Cost. Personally, while I appreciate these works for their theoretical insights (well, isn’t that an understatement!), I appreciate Coase much more for articles that very few know about.

Generally, after these two articles, most economists do not know what Coase wrote about.  Some might know about Coase’s proviso regarding durability and monopoly (a single firm producing a durable good cannot be a monopoly because it competes with its future self) or about his work on the Federal Communications Commission (which is an application of his two main papers).

Fewer people know about his piece about the lighthouse in economics. While it is not an unknown piece, it is mostly known within the subfield of public economics as it concerns the scope for the private provision of public goods. Generally, I found that those who know about the piece know the “takeaway” which was that lighthouses (which because of their low marginal costs and non-excludability have been deemed public goods ever since J.S. Mill) could be produced privately. While this was indeed Coase’s point, this summary (like that Stigler made of the Coase Theorem) misses the peripheral insights that matter. Coase did the economic history job of documenting the institutional details behind the provision of lighthouses which sparked debates in journals such as Journal of Legal Studies, Cambridge Journal of Economics, European Review of Economic History, Public Choice and Public Finance Review (they still go to this day and I am trying to contribute to that with this piece that me and Rosolino Candela have recently submitted). It seems unclear whether or not the lighthouse can even be considered a public good or if it was merely an instance of government failure rather than market failure (or the reverse). Regardless of the outcome, if you read the lighthouse paper by Coase, you will read an application of theory to history bringing a “boring” topic (i.e. that of maritime safety pre-1900) to life through theory.  The lighthouse paper is an application of industrial organization through the Coasean lenses of transaction costs and joint provision. And it is a fine application if I might say!

But that is not his only piece! Has anyone ever read his article in the Journal of Law & Economics on Fisher Body and vertical integration? Or his piece on the British Post Office and private messengers in the same journal?  In those articles, Coase brings theory to life by asking simple questions to history in ways that force us to question some common day conceptions like “vertical integration was the results of holdup problems” or “postal services need to be publicly provided”.  In both of these articles and the lighthouse article, Coase basically applies simple theoretical tools to cut through a maze of details in order to answer questions of great relevance to economic theory and even policy (i.e. the post office example). And this is why, earlier in 2017, I mentioned that Coase should be considered in the league of the top economic historians.

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