The Economist on Coase at 100
| Peter Klein |
The new Economist celebrates Ronald Coase’s 100th birthday (this coming Wednesday) with a short piece on “The Nature of the Firm” (1937), the founding document of modern organizational economics (16,379 Google Scholar cites). (Thanks to Avi for the pointer.) It’s nice to see the theory of the firm get its props, and the first few paragraphs do a good job summarizing the paper. But the (anonymous) author has misread the modern literature, first in setting up an artificial conflict between Coase’s transaction-cost approach and the resource-based approach to the firm and, second, by missing the depth and nuance of Coase’s own research program.
On the first point: Much recent work tries to reconcile transaction cost economics (TCE) and the resource-based view (RBV) (e.g., Silverman, 1999; Foss and Langlois, 1999; Tsang, 2000; Madhok, 2002; Foss and Foss, 2005), pointing out that the two theories are, in important ways, complementary. Put simply: TCE and RBV start with different explananda. The RBV asks which resources will be combined in which ways to produce which outputs, while TCE asks how this activity will be organized (market, hierarchy, or hybrid). RBV offers a theory of competitive advantage, while TCE focuses on boundaries and governance. Second, the Economist writer confuses Coase with the (Coase-inspired) transaction cost approach of Williamson (1971, 1975, 1979) and Klein, Crawford, and Alchian (1978):
Mr Coase’s narrow focus on transaction costs nevertheless provides only a partial explanation of the power of firms. . . . Companies can organise production and create knowledge in unique ways. They can also make long-term bets on innovations that will redefine markets rather than merely satisfy demand. Mr Coase’s theory of “market failure” needs to be complemented by a theory of “organisational advantages.”
The irony is that Coase’s own, revisionist explanation of the GM-Fisher case (discussed here, here, and here) is based precisely on “organizational advantages,” not transaction costs. Coase argues that GM acquired Fisher to make more effective use of the Fisher brothers’ specific human capital, not to avoid market transaction costs (as in the canonical version of the story).
What, The Economist doesn’t read O&M? Shocking!