25 April 2013

He Said It: Coase

"The question remains: how is it that these great men [viz., J.S. Mill, Henry Sidgwick, A.C. Pigou, and Paul Samuelson] have, in their economic writings, been led to make statements about lighthouses which are misleading as to the facts, and which, to the extent that they imply a policy conclusion, are very likely to be wrong? The explanation is that these references by economists to lighthouses are not the result of their having made a study of lighthouses or having read a detailed study by some other economist. Despite the extensive use of the lighthouse example in the literature, no economist, to my knowledge, has ever made a comprehensive study of lighthouse finance and administration. The lighthouse is simply plucked out of the air to serve as an illustration. The purpose of the lighthouse example is to provide 'corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative' [William S. Gilbert, 'The Mikado']. 

"This seems to me the wrong approach."

--Ronald H. Coase, "The Lighthouse in Economics," Journal of Law and Economics 17, 2 (October 1974), pp. 374-5.

24 April 2013

He Said It: Coase

"The government is, in a sense, a super-firm (but of a very special kind) since it is able to influence the use of the factors of production by administrative decision. But the ordinary firm is subject to checks in its operations by the competition of other firms, which might administer the same activities at lower cost and also because there is always the alternative of market transactions as against organisation within the firm if the administrative costs become too great. The government is able, if it wishes, to avoid the market altogether, which a firm can never do. The firm has to make market agreements with the owners of the factors of production that it uses. Just as the government can conscript or seize property, so it can decree that factors of production should only be used in such-and-such a way. Such authoritarian methods save a lot of trouble (for those doing the organising). Furthermore, the government has at its disposal the police and the other law enforcement officials to make sure that its regulations are carried out.

"It is clear that the government has powers which might enable it to get some things done at a lower cost than could a private organisation (or at any rate one without special governmental powers). But the governmental administrative machine is not itself costless. It can, in fact, on occasion be extremely costly. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that the restrictive and zoning regulations, made by a fallible administration subject to political pressure and operating without any competitive check, will necessarily always be those which increase the efficiency with which the economic system operates. Furthermore, such general regulations which must apply to a wide variety of cases will be enforced in some cases in which they are clearly inappropriate. From these considerations it follows that direct governmental regulation will not necessarily give better results than leaving the problem to be solved by the market or the firm. But equally there is no reason why, on occasion, such governmental administrative regulation should not lead to an improvement in economic efficiency. This would seem particularly likely when, as is normally the case with the smoke nuisance, a large number of people are involved and in which therefore the costs of handling the problem through the market or the firm may be high.

"There is, of course, a further alternative, which is to do nothing about the problem at all. And given that the costs involved in solving the problem of regulations issued by the governmental administrative machine will often be heavy (particularly if the costs are interpreted to include all the consequences which follow from the Government engaging in this kind of activity), it will no doubt be commonly the case that the gain which would come from regulating the actions which give rise to the harmful effects will be less than the costs involved in Government Regulation."

--Ronald H. Coase, "The Problem of Social Cost," Journal of Law and Economics 3 (October 1960), pp. 17-18.

23 April 2013

He Said It: Kierkegaard

"If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in the dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair? If such were the situation, if there were no sacred bond that knit humankind together, if one generation emerged after another like forest foliage, if one generation succeeded another like the singing of the birds in the forest, if a generation passed through the world as a ship through the sea, as wind through the desert, an unthinking and unproductive performance, if an eternal oblivion, perpetually hungry, lurked for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrench that away from it--how empty and devoid of consolation life would be! But precisely for that reason it is not so, and just as God created man and woman, so He created the hero and the poet or orator." 

--Johannes de Silentio (a.k.a. Søren Kierkegaard), "Eulogy on Abraham," from Fear and Trembling (1843)

He Said It: Coase

"It is perhaps the main achievement of economic science that it has shown that there is no reason to suppose that specialisation must lead to chaos." 

--Ronald H. Coase, "The Nature of the Firm," Economica 4, 16 (November 1937), p. 398

15 April 2013

He Said It: David Hume

"It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of those biasses to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society. Abstruse thought and profound researches I prohibit, and will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated. Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man."

--David Hume (1711-76), Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), section 1

09 April 2013

He Said It: Buchanan

"The scholarly field of economics as practiced and promulgated in this century has done its share of damage. Rather than allow the study of economics to offer genuine intellectual adventure and excitement, we have converted it into a complex mathematical and empirical science. This trend was only partially offset during the decades of the Cold War, when the continuing challenge of fighting communism offered motivation to liberals such as Hayek and a relatively small number of his peers. But since then, the discipline has become piddling puzzle solving. How can we make economics come alive again, especially for those who will never be professionally trained economists?"

--James M. Buchanan (1919-2013), "Saving the Soul of Classical Liberalism" (from the Wall Street Journal, January 1, 2000)