Capabilities, Transaction Costs, and Buzz Lightyear
| Dick Langlois |
I joked in a comment on Peter’s last post about naming classes of articles after fairy-tale (or is it Disney?) characters. Is there a Disney moniker for a work that keeps getting reinvented? As I get older, I think about this more often, and I’m probably entering the dread legacy-protection phase of my career.
This came to mind because I happened upon an interesting paper from Nick Argyres and Todd Zenger, which has been out for a while but which I hadn’t seen. The authors propose to synthesize capabilities theory and transaction-cost economics. A worthy goal. Except that Paul Robertson and I did this twenty years ago. Argyres and Zenger point out, as Paul and I did, that neither capabilities alone nor transaction-costs alone can explain the boundaries of the firm. They settle on an account in which firms integrate because of strong complementarities among assets that create hold-up problems if accessed through markets. Their example is Disney’s relationship with and eventual acquisition of Pixar. (I know! A work that gets constantly reinvented is a Buzz Lightyear!) Far from being a general theory of capabilities and transaction costs, however, this is a special case of the general theory Paul and I proposed. We talked specifically about this kind of case (see especially pp. 38-40), which we called the appropriability variant of our account, associated with Teece (1986), to distinguish it from the entrepreneurial variant. In the entrepreneurial variant, firms integrate into complementary activities because of the dynamic transaction costs of using markets. Argyres and Zenger cite my 1992 ICC paper on dynamic transaction costs, but they make it out to be a claim that capabilities alone can explain vertical integration, which is of course the opposite of what the article actually says. They offer the gnomic remark that my definition of dynamic transaction costs “mirrors that of Williamsonian transaction costs.” But isn’t that the point? They really are transaction costs, and you can’t explain vertical integration without transaction costs. I’m sure there are a lot cases like Pixar out there, and I have certainly never denied that hold-up threats are sometimes a cause of vertical integration. But as I learn more about the history of vertical integration as part of the Corporation and the Twentieth Century manuscript I’m now working on, dynamic transaction costs are on the whole much more important than hold-up threats. (Also extremely important is government policy, which is really the point of this new project.) I’m sorry this sounds a bit negative, since the Argyres and Zenger paper really is a terrific article that is right-headed and develops the appropriability variant in much more depth than Paul and I did in our quick sketch.
Another paper that reinvented (and significantly extended) Langlois and Robertson (1995) is Jacobides and Winter (2005). Of course, I can’t very well criticize Sid Winter, since the whole idea of dynamic transaction costs came out of my effort in the 80s and 90s to apply Nelson and Winter (as well as Coase) to the problem of the boundaries of the firm, something that Nelson and Winter themselves had not then gotten around to.