Conference on Ronald Coase and His Times

5 11 2013

AS: As readers of this blog will know, the great economist Ronald Coase (1910-2013) died  earlier this year. To learn more about this important contributions to economics and economic history, listen to this recent podcast.  In the podcast, Don Boudreaux of George Mason University chats with Russ Roberts about Coase’s four key publications. Coase, who completed his graduate education at LSE in the early 1930s, was arguably the last of the great literary economists: Coase’s articles were beautifully written and contained relatively few numbers, which made them accessible to a wide range of people. 

Coase formulated his famous theory of the firm while he was working at the newly founded Dundee School of Economics and Commerce in the 1930s.  The School, which is now part of the University of Dundee, is hosting a conference this month at which scholars will present a papers in which they seek to place Coase in his immediate historical context.  Judging from its title, Carlo Morelli’s paper will assess whether Coase’s theory of the firm was based on his observations of Dundee’s jute industry



Morelli’s paper appears to contradict a statement about the inspiration for Coase’s 1937 paper on the Nature of the Firm that Russ Roberts made in the aforementioned podcast.  In the podcast, Dr Roberts stated that the paper

 grew out of a trip that Coase had made, with a fellow student I believe, to the United States, a research trip. He was a student at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he encountered Friedrich Hayek; Hayek was one of his professors. His main professor was Arnold Plant. Arnold Plant was very interested in accounting and did some work in the economics of accounting. As did Coase. Coase got a fellowship in the early 1930s to the United States, and he studied actual business organization. At some point it dawned on him that the way economists talk about the firm, the firm is a black box. To this day we don’t really talk about what goes on inside the firm. 

I know this is a small point, but it seemed worthy of mention.

The Dundee Jute Industry In Its Prime

Anyway, here are the details of the conference.

The University of Dundee’s Scottish Centre for Economic Methodology is hosting a conference 18 November 2013, “Origins of the Theory of the Firm: Ronald Coase at Dundee, 1932-1934.” The program looks really interesting:

  • Keith Tribe, “Dundee and Interwar Commercial Education.”
  • Billy Kenefick, “‘A great industrial cul-de-sac, a grim monument to “man’s inhumanity to man.” ‘ Dundee by the early 1930s.”
  • Carlo Morelli, “Market & Non-Market Co-ordination: Dundee and its Jute Industry – The Case Study for Ronald Coase?”
  • David Campbell, “Agency, Authority and Co-operation in the Firm: Coase, Macneil, Marx.”
  • Alice Belcher, “Coase and the Concept of Direction: How Valuable are Legal Concepts in the Theory of the Firm?”
  • Brian Loasby, “Ronald Coase’s Theory of the Firm and the Scope of Economics.”
  • Alistair Dow & Sheila Dow, “Coase and Scottish Political Economy.”
  • Eyup Ozveren & Ilhan Can Ozen, “Coase versus Coase: What if the Market Were One Big Firm Instead?”
  • Neil Kay, “Coase, The Nature of the Firm, and the Principles of Marginal Analysis.”

Hat tip to Peter Klein.

P.S. Coase briefly taught at the University of Liverpool, my new employer.

Ronald Coase

5 09 2013

More details are emerging about the life of the recently departed Ronald Coase, a great economist whose ideas changed public policy in many countries.  In the early 1960s, he was effectively persecuted for his belief in the free market by a dean at the University of Virginia who was apparently intent on eliminating anyone who disagreed with the basic principles of the New Deal.  In 1964, one of Coase’s colleagues

accidentally received a copy of a secret dossier compiled by then Dean of the Faculty Robert Harris in which Harris outlined a plan to change the economics faculty. Under then President Edgar Shannon, Harris allegedly used non-promotion and non-offer-matching to force Jefferson Center scholars to disperse. Coase left UVA for Chicago in 1964; Buchanan departed four years later.

In 1997, Coase recalled that:

They thought the work we were doing was disreputable. They thought of us as right- wing extremists. My wife was at a cocktail party and heard me described as someone to the right of the John Birch Society. There was a great antagonism in the ’50s and ’60s to anyone who saw any advantage in a market system or in a nonregulated or relatively economically free system.

Today, Coase’s ideas are very mainstream. In fact, there is a citation of a paper by Coase in a co-authored paper I am working on today. You can read more about Coase and the University of Virginia here.