Ronald Coase, of Coase Theorem fame, Dies.

From the New York Times: (Ronald H. Coase, ‘Accidental’ Economist Who Won a Nobel Prize, Dies at 102)

Ronald H. Coase, whose insights about why companies work and when government regulation is unnecessary earned him a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 1991, died on Monday in Chicago. He was 102.

He introduced the concept of transaction costs — the costs each party incurs in the course of buying or selling things — and showed that companies made economic sense when they were able to reduce or eliminate those costs by performing some functions in-house rather than dealing in the marketplace.

In the second of his groundbreaking papers, “The Problem of Social Cost,” published in 1960, Professor Coase challenged the idea that the only way to restrain people and companies from behaving in ways that harmed others was through government intervention. He argued that if there were no transaction costs, the affected parties could negotiate and settle conflicts privately to their mutual benefit, and that fostering such settlements might make more economic sense than pre-empting them with regulations.

The paper made the idea of property rights fundamental to understanding the role of regulation in the economy.

The Coase Theorem is a central theorem in environmental economics.  It states that, in the presence of an externality (e.g. I’m yelling loudly in the Junction and you’re annoyed), if there is (1) low transactions costs (we can speak to each other easily), (2) perfect information (we both know the benefits and costs to each other of my yelling), (3) and clear property rights (either I have the right to yell or you have the right to not hear my yelling), the two parties can bargain and an economically efficient outcome will result.  An economically efficient outcome is one in which the benefits to society (in this silly example, that’s just you and me) minus the costs to society are greatest.

If the conditions for the Coase Theorem hold, it means that, theoretically, there’s no need for government regulation or intervention to resolve the issue (assuming all we care about is economic efficiency, that is).  The question is always whether or not the conditions hold.