What Are “Transaction Costs” Anyway?
| Peter Klein |
A friend complains that management and entrepreneurship scholarship is confused about the concept of transaction costs. Authors rarely give explicit definitions. They conflate search costs, bargaining costs, measurement costs, agency costs, enforcement costs, etc. No one distinguishes between Coase’s, Williamson’s, and North’s formulations. “Transaction costs seem to be whatever the author wants them to be to justify the argument.”
It’s a fair point, and it applies to economics (and other social sciences and professional fields) too. I remember being asked by a prominent economist, back when I was a PhD student writing under Williamson, why transaction costs “don’t simply go to zero in the long run.” Indeed, contemporary organizational economics mostly uses terms like “contracting costs,” and since 1991 Williamson has tended to use “maladaptation costs” (while retaining the term “transaction cost economics”).
When I teach transaction costs I typically assign Doug Allen’s excellent 2000 essay from the Encyclopedia of Law and Economics and Lee and Alexandra Benhams’ more recent survey from my Elgar Companion to Transaction Cost Economics (unfortunately gated). Doug, for example, usefully distinguishes between a “neoclassical approach,” in which transaction costs are the costs of exchanging well-defined property rights, and a “property-rights approach,” in which transaction costs are the costs of defining and enforcing property rights.
What other articles, chapters, and reviews would you suggest to help clarify the definition and best use of the “transaction costs”? Or should we avoid the term entirely in favor of narrower and more precise words and phrases?