There are few economists who are as important to the development of economics as Ronald Coase. It is important that young economists who, in their now almost-universally inadequate education, take the time to familiarize themselves with his contributions. This is best done directly through his own well-written articles rather than through the literature about him. It is perhaps unfortunate that George Stigler labeled Coase’s analysis in “The Problem of Social Cost” a theorem — the Coase Theorem. This has given rise to all manner of misunderstandings, including the incredibly ignorant remark I once heard from a graduate student, mocking the theorem-status of the analysis. That was some years ago. Today most students at the top economics have never been exposed to Coase’s work.
I look at Coase’s work on property rights as establishing an analytical framework rather than a set of policy conclusions. I believe that a new, exciting area of application of Coase’s perspective lies in the study of what some economists are calling internalities. An internality is a cost (or benefit) that a individual imposes on his future selves as as side-effect of activity today. Thus, for example, I may eat potato chips today getting pleasure but then impose some health cost on my future self. Some economists have proposed an internality tax to “correct” the situation. In a previous post I analyze this issue and present some references, including a great piece by Glen Whitman.
I wish Ronald Coase a happy birthday and thank him for making economics a better discipline.
(HT: David Boaz)
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