Coase-Theorem Behavior Actually Does Happen
| Dick Langlois |
I often find it hard to persuade students that the Coase Theorem actually “works” – that one party really will bribe another party to give up a right when transaction costs are low. So I was pleased to find this example on the Atlantic Monthly website. An author called Patrick Wensink ripped off the trademarked Jack Daniel’s label for the cover of a novel called Broken Piano for President, whose principal (perhaps only) interesting characteristic is that it was published by a press called Lazy Fascist. Clearly this is a conflict over the use of a property right, and the author is enjoying uncompensated benefits. One would think that, as Jack Daniel’s clearly owns the property right, the company could force the author to change the cover. Apparently, however, the transaction costs of doing that are high, so the attorney for Jack Daniel’s wrote the author a charming cease-and-desist letter that actually offered to bribe the author to change the cover right away. This is a general point, I suppose, now that I think about it: as the transaction costs rise of using official legal institutions to resolve externality conflicts, the de facto owner of the right can effectively switch, even in a world in which the transaction costs we usually talk about – those of finding and negotiating with the conflicting users of the property – remain small enough to allow Coasean bargaining.