Today’s Quote of the Day comes from pages 7-8 of Ronald Coase’s 1988 book The Firm, the Market, and the Law [emphasis added]:
Markets are institutions that exist to facilitate exchange, that is, they exist in order to reduce the cost of carrying out exchange transactions. In an economic theory that assumes transaction costs are nonexistant, markets have no function to perform and it seems perfectly reasonable to develop the theory of exchange by an elaborate analysis of individuals exchanging nuts for apples on the edge of a forest or some similar fanciful example.
Many readers of Coase (including economists!) misunderstand him. This is evident in the improperly named Coase Theorem (it’s improper in that it’s not a theorem). In fact, Coase is so often misunderstood, he felt compelled to write the book this quote is from to clarify his point! Coase is often understood to say that, absent transaction costs (or sufficiently low transaction costs), externality issues (eg pollution, noise, etc) can be solved by an allocation of property rights and, regardless of their initial allocation, will result in a Pareto-efficient outcome. This is correct, but only a partial understanding of Coase.
Much of Coase’s work (and work that spun off from him, such as with Armin Alchian, Harold Demsetz, Gordon Tullock, and many others including my own) focus on the role of the market in addressing externality issues. Detractors from Coase argue that his insights, that markets for externalities can exist only if there are no/low transaction costs, are not applicable to the “real world,” since transaction costs abound and, therefore, government intervention is necessary. But this argument represents a misreading of Coase. In a purely ideal world, there would be no transaction costs, but then no market would be necessary. As Coase says in the above quote, it is in the world of transaction costs that the market is most useful! The existence of transaction costs gives rise to firms and other means of human collaboration, which in turn reduce transaction costs, and increase the market exchange of individuals (see The Nature of the Firm (1937) for a more in-depth conversation on this point).
Expanding the idea of markets, firms, and transaction costs to environmental issues, we see the rise of “enviropreneurs” (to use the phrasing of PERC), that is people who seek out and find ways to mitigate these transaction costs in order to achieve desired environmental ends; in short, a market process of environmental concerns (for a detailed look at many different kinds of enviropreneurs, see Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation, especially Chapter 9). The fact transaction costs exist is not a detriment to free market environmentalism, like the detractors of Coase argue, but rather what allows it to come about!
Like Coase (and Buchanan and many others) before me, I realize the market is not a panacea. There may be conditions for government to get involved (namely where involvement by the firm or an individual are too costly). But the work of Coase (and Alchian and Demsetz and Buchanan and Tullock and Anderson and many others) show us that the mere existence of an externality and transaction costs is not enough to justify intervention.