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Coase on the Economists

November 21, 2012
Ronald Coase has a short piece in the December 2012 Harvard Business Review, "Saving Economics from the Economists" (thanks to Geoff Manne for the tip). Not bad for a fellow about to turn 102! I always learn from Coase, even when I don't fully agree. Here Coase decries the irrelevance of contemporary economic theory, condemning economics for "giving up the real-world economy as its subject matter." He also provides a killer quote: "Economics thus becomes a convenient instrument the state uses to manage the economy, rather than a tool the public turns to for enlightenment about how the economy operates." Sounds like parts of neoclassical economics, and describes Keynesian macroeconomics perfectly! But Coase seems to reject economic theorizing altogether, even the "causal-realist" approach popular in these parts. To be useful, he argues, economics should provide practical guidance for the businessperson. However, "[s]ince economics offers little in the way of practical insight, managers and entrepreneurs depend on their own business acumen, personal judgment, and rules of thumb in making decisions." Well, that sounds about right to me. Economics provides general principles, or laws, about human action, mostly stated as "if-then" propositions. Applying the principles to concrete, historical cases requires Verstehen, and is the task of economic historians (as analysts) and entrepreneurs (as actors), not economic theorists. Deductive theory does not replace thymology or judgment. Without deductive theory, however, we'd have no principles to apply, and nothing to contribute to our understanding of the economy except -- to quote Coase's own critique of the Old Institutionalists -- "a mass of descriptive material waiting for a theory, or a fire." To be sure, Coase's own inductive method has led to several brilliant insights. Coase himself has a knack for intuiting general principles from concrete cases (e.g., theorizing about transaction costs from observing automobile plants, or about property rights from studying the history of spectrum allocation), though not perfectly. But, as I noted before, Coase himself is probably the exception that proves the rule -- namely that induction is a mess.

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