International Society for New Institutional Economics
St. Louis, Missouri, USA
September 17, 1997
Editor's note: To introduce the interview, John Nye of the Economics
Department, Washington University, writes,
"Ronald Coase, the first president of the Society, has been a
leader in creating ISNIE. Part of the interest in forming the
Society arose from his view that the mainstream members of the
economics profession have failed to live up to the promise of the
field inherent in Adam Smithís work: they have overemphasized the
formal and abstract aspects of theory at the expense of empirical
and institutional research. Prior to the inaugural conference of
ISNIE, several members of the Society met with Professor Coase in
St. Louis for a question-and-answer session, asking him to expound
on New Institutional Economics and the aims of the Society, and
moving from there to a wide-ranging discussion of the economics
profession and his hopes for the future of economic research."
The interviewers were Tawni
Ferrarini, Northern Michigan University (who also videotaped the
session); John Nye, Washington University; and Alfredo Bullard and
Hugo Eyzaguirre, INDECOPI, Lima, Peru. The interview was transcribed
from video by Alexandra Benham. Editing has been very minor.
Ferrarini: What is New Institutional Economics?
Economists have never considered
until recently the role that institutions play in the working of the
economic system. In fact, the institutions determine the way in
which the economic system operates.
Nye: What about the old
institutionalists? How does the new institutionalism differ?
The old institutionalists were
concerned in the main with describing institutions rather than with
analyzing them, thatís basically the difference.
Nye: Could you tell us some more
about how the new institutionalism will affect or change standard
Well, it wonít so much change
conventional economics as reshape it and replace it. In my mind, the
New Institutional Economics is economics. Itís what economics
ought to be. Existing economics is a theoretical system which floats
in the air and which bears little relation to what actually happens
in the real world.
Nye: Could you expand on that? Is
the problem the methodology of conventional economics or is the
problem the subject matter?
I would say it has no subject
matter. Thatís the problem.
Nye: Is it because you think that
conventional economics is more about an analytic framework than it
is a subject matter?
Itís concerned with the
development of a theory, a theory which is not related to what
actually goes on in the economic system. Harold Demsetz explained
how this has come about. Adam Smith introduced the notion of the
invisible hand or the pricing system coordinating the working of the
economic system. What economists have done in the time since then is
to formalize this system. It deals with a system of extreme
decentralization. It is not the system that actually exists.
Nye: Could you give us an example
of something that New Institutional Economics treats or studies
better than conventional economics? Could you expound on that?
The New Institutional Economics is
not a single body of thought. There are a whole series of separate
strands which have not been brought together and indeed in my view
should not at the moment be brought together because we donít know
enough to do it. So I think these separate strands should develop,
and from time to time people will be able to mesh them together. The
part Iíve been most interested in is, of course, the relation of
economics and law. Unfortunatelyóand this is one of the
difficulties with the New Institutional Economicsóthat part of the
relationship of economics and law which analyzes the legal system
has gone ahead much more than that part of the subject which deals
with the effects of the legal system on the economic system. That is
to say, what people have done is to use economics to study the legal
system rather than discuss how changes of the law affect the actual
way the economic system operates.
Nye: Thatís a good subject
to pursue. Many economists would say that since the publication of
your 1960 article which contained the germ of what people call the
Coase Theorem, it has been assimilated into economics, and yet you
are suggesting that the combination of economics and the law has not
been well done yet. Could you comment on the way economists have
taken your work and developed it, versus the way you would like to
see it developed?
I think the success of the Coase
Theoremóbecause itís discussed all over the placeóis an
interesting illustration of whatís wrong with economics; because,
if you read "The Problem of Social Cost," it occupies
perhaps four pages. Itís useful. I think itís useful because you
can show, using it, the type of contracts that would have to be made
in order to have an efficient economic system. But then you have to
introduce, having done that, the obstacles to doing it. Then you see
how the system actually works. But many people have only read the
four pages or only thought about the four pagesóone of the reasons
theyíve done that, of course, is itís the most abstract part of
Nye: So you think what they like
about the Coase Theorem is the abstract nature of it, but theyíre
not seriously interested really in the gist of your article?
Absolutely. The article has been
very successful for the wrong reasons. To people who like success
thatís all right, but to people who are concerned with the
development of the subject itís not a very good thing.
Nye: Letís talk about what you
think research would look like if it had been successful for the
right reason. What kinds of research would you observe if it were
successful for the right reasons?
Youíd be concerned with the types
of contracts people make in different situations, how the ability to
make these contracts depends on the existence of various
institutions, of various laws, of the type of educational system
that exists, and so on. You would have begun to see what it is that
makes possible the types of contracts youíd like to make. You get
into the problem. At the moment, that is being completely ignored.
Ferrarini: You argue in "The
Nature of the Firm" that the firm is the supercession of the
price mechanism. Planning and the price mechanism co-exist in an
economy. Depending on the cost of an organization and transactions,
the agents will decide which one to use. Letís talk about the
economic system as a whole. How should a society decide which
economic system to choose? Is there a more efficient economic system
Well, there is no one way better
economic system, because everything depends on the society youíre
in. You may have views on the part that educational or religious
organizations play in economic life; but if you have a society in
which the only educated people are the clergy, you have a very
different view of what the role should be of religious
organizations. That is an extreme example. There was a time in
England when the chief politicians were also cardinals and other
clerics, but you wouldnít from that infer on the whole that itís
a good system to have cardinals in charge of economic policy. It
might have been at a certain time. I canít give an answer to that
particular question simply because you get a different answer for
every country and every historical situation.
Nye: But that argument has been
used in the past to justify almost any economic system, some of
which have been marked failures. What guidance can you give to a
country, particularly a developing one, looking for a means of
deciding where to draw the line?
Well, there are two. First of all,
they should make a study of how their actual economic system
operates, what the important factors are that encourage development.
And the next thing is to be cautious in drawing conclusions. Itís
so easy to go wrong. There are so many wrong ways of doing things
and so few right ones.
Nye: According to the typical
International Monetary Fund prescription, neoclassical theory
suggests steps to follow toward a market-oriented economy:
privatization, deregulation, macroeconomic stability, and so on. Is
that enough? How should we think about the problems of determining
the conditions for a properly functioning market economy?
I donít think itís enough just
to think in those terms. One should also think in terms of the
institutions of that country, particularly the social institutions,
and build from where you are. It seems to me a mistake not to start
from the point where you are. To try and change a country
dramatically, pull it up by the roots and start again, that seems to
me wrong. In this respectóand I donít know whether Iím right
or notómy feeling is that at the moment things are moving better
in, say, China than in Russia simply because they have built on the
existing institutions. They have household-responsibility contracts
which they have been able to develop because it was very easy to
move from a commune to a family system because of the social
organization of the family in China. You could turn it into an
economic unit. You could develop contracts, with the result, I
understand, that output in the agricultural field has doubled as a
result of these contracts. Whereas what you had in Russia, if you
could get rid of a collective farm, you would have a lot of
unemployed bureaucrats and farm laborers. So obviously I would think
you have to go about things in a different way in these two
countries. I think weíre going to learn a lot from the efforts
which people are making for privatization in different countries. Weíre
going to find out a lot about the ways not to do it. I donít know
that I can say what the way is to do it, because we have so much to
learn, but I certainly donít think thereís one way.
Nye: But a Russian might come to
you and say, "We have so many institutions we need to reform
and change, but political realities make it difficult for us to
reform all of them at the same time. Where should we start? How can
you help us think about this problem?"
I wouldnít try. I would say, you
know your institutions. I donít know your institutions. One of the
things that went wrong after the war was that people went around
from country to country telling them how they should operate, and
they gave the same prescription for each country. They knew nothing
about these countries. Of course the answer they gave then was,
"move to socialism."
Bullard: With recent reform
experience in Eastern Europe and in developing countries, many have
studied the question whether the appropriate legal framework and the
improved enforcement of the rules is not enough. Do you think that
beliefs play also an important role in the agentís decisions and
therefore in the performance of the price system? Is there then a
market culture that needs to be developed in these situations?
Yes, I think so. When you get a
society in which people are completely unaccustomed to operating in
a market system, you are not going to get a very good market system.
Thatís perhaps another reason why Iím all in favor of caution so
that people can learn how to operate a market system. I donít
think you want to think simply about introducing prices, because if
you give people the right institutions the prices will emerge. They
do need to have institutions within which they can work. They do
need to have institutions that they can understand, that they have
experience of operating. Now again I think that will vary from place
to place. I suspect that the difference in the performance of
different countries in Eastern Europe is related to the length of
time they have been under a communist system, because under a
communist system you donít learn how to operate a market system. I
think the difference between East Germany and West Germany is very
interesting here. Itís sort of surprising that different attitudes
emerge so quickly. Iím surprised that there was this difference
between the attitudes of the Germans in East Germany and West
Germany after only forty years.
Bullard: Is there a role for the
state in the development of this market culture? And is there a role
for the state in the reduction of transaction costs in the economy?
Well, there is a double role for
the state. One is, not to stop things happening. Thatís very
important, not to get in the way. On the other hand, Iíve never
felt that you could get a property rights system without the use of
state powers. You can in narrow areas; trade associations and others
can form organizations to set up what is in effect a private legal
system. Itís very hard to do that when youíre dealing with
people with very diverse interests.
Bullard: In the developing
countries, government intervention has resulted in the emergence of
important underground economiesóinformal economies. For example,
in Peru, in the last thirty years most urban development has been
the result of agentsó private agentsóoperating outside of the
legal system. They have created their own property rights. They have
created their own enforcement mechanisms. The informal sector of
housing generates half of the gross national product. It influences
more than half the labor force. How can your theory of New
Institutional Economics explain these phenomena?
I would have thought it was rather
easy to explain. If the government in fact doesnít allow certain
activities or impedes them in various ways, people try to establish
them. But, of course, lacking the enforcement powers of the state,
they have to adopt their own. They often are very inefficient,
arbitrary, intermittent, and so on. Iím sure you know more about
what happened in Peru. But the enforcement mechanisms arenít
necessarily particularly efficient ones, and the intervention of the
government is also intermittent and uncertain. So sometimes they
will prevent something and sometimes they wonít. Sometimes theyíll
encourage something and sometimes they wonít. So you have an
economic system where people are very unsure of their rights and
therefore not as willing to trade and invest as they might be.
Bullard: In many of your writings
you argue that the government usually tends to do too much in an
economy. How to define an adequate level of intervention of the
state in the economy? What about regulation, for example, regulation
for consumer protection, antitrust, or that kind of issue?
Well, you cannot say that
regulations might not improve things; for example, standardization
is an example. On the other hand, regulation can also make things
bad. What has been puzzling to me in the studies that weíve made
in the United States is how many of the regulations make things
worse, although thereís no particular reason why they have to make
things worse. The answer that I have given is that in the United
States the government operates on such a massive scale that people
donít really know whatís happening. The only people who really
are interested or able to follow these things are the people who are
being regulated, and their interests do not necessarily coincide
with the interests of other people. At the present time here, the
government operates on such a massive scale that in this room where
we are there are probably hundreds of agencies which have
regulations which impinge on what is happening here. No one knows
about them except the people who are immediately affected by them.
They are therefore interested in seeing that the regulations are of
such a character as to help themselves. So you get a lot of bad
regulation. The studies we published in the Journal of Law and
Economics gave us very few good regulations. It doesnít seem
inevitable that this should be, and I think if we got the governmentís
intervention in the economic sphere much reduced, weíd get much
more sensible regulation. Whether that is true or not, I donít
know. At any rate, that is my view. Itís very easy to see that you
can get good regulation. One that I happen to know about is the
screw thread agreement: so that you have standardization on screw
threads such that itís possible for people in different countries
to use the same screws. It might have happened, and it sometimes
happens, without government action. In other cases it only seems to
come about if you do have government regulation.
Bullard: One of the temptations
that the government has in developing countries is try to solve the
poverty problem or the unfair distribution problem through
regulations or through intervention. For example, we have a case in
Peruó a very small case but I think it will show what is going onówhere
a person goes to a store, not a normal store but a vendor on the
streets. He buys a pair of shoes, and these shoes cost around two
dollars. Theyíre very cheap. That night he goes to a party: he
bought the shoes to go to a party. In Lima it never rains, but it
rains that night. And the shoes become softer and softer, and they
disappear. They were made from paper. And the problem that the
governmental agency in charge of consumer protection has at the
moment is, "Well, I have two ways to deal with this. One, I
cannot accept that poor people have to buy paper shoes. On the other
hand, I can decide that paper shoes are the only chance poor people
have to have something on their feet. The regular shoes are too
expensive." Should the government decide which kind of shoes
people have to use, in that kind of situation, even when we are
talking about very bad quality of the product? The problem is, is
there space for the state in this kind of case or should we let the
things go on as they are?
In a case like this I wouldnít
see the need for the government regulation at all. On the whole,
people are pretty good judges of what is appropriate for them.
Naturally, if you are poor, you donít want to spend most of your
money on a high-grade product because that would mean you would not
be able to spend money on other things. The meaning of being poor is
that you have to buy shoes made of paper and other things.
Nye: Whatís your attitude toward
large-scale redistribution at the expense of property rights?
Massive taxation, or land reform, or confiscation from the rich to
redistribute to the poor?
It operates the same way as
regulation. On the whole, whatever you do, the smart people will
take advantage of it. Take the changes in the tax laws. Itís very
dubious whether they changed the net distribution at all. Theyíve
just made the system less efficient.
Ferrarini: Recently there was an
article in The Economist that attacked economics or economistsí
ability to explain accurately, with their theories, current events.
How will New Institutional Economics specifically help economists
make individuals like the person who wrote this article better
understand that economists can provide fairly accurate explanations,
as well as improve their abilities to do so?
Well, Iím not sure that the
writer of the article is wrong. I have not read it, but judging from
what you say, it says it seems right on the whole. Economists have
not given very good explanations as to why economic arrangements are
made in the way they are. But I think they could, and I think there
are two ways in which this could be done. One is to make empirical
studies, not to develop a theory but find out what happens. And the
second way is for people to specialize in particular areas so they
know what theyíre talking about.
Ferrarini: When you talk about the
particular areas, are you talking about different social, political
and economic frameworks where you have specialists come in and study
I think particular industries,
transactions, countries. It means youíre going to get a whole lot
of studies which are at the present stage difficult to relate to one
another. But thatís the state in which we are.
Ferrarini: So youíre interested
basically in having individuals come together and collectively study
how political, social and economic institutions act upon and
interact with each other?
Not come together. Do it
Ferrarini: Do it separately,
Ferrarini: Then what about merging
the final product? How are you going to bring everything together?
Why would you not want to bring things together?
I want to bring them together when
you can bring them together. We are not ready yet. We need to have
all the individual studies done. Then some new Adam Smith or someone
like that will be able to do it. One of our problems is that weíve
got to understand this interrelated system. But you canít
understand the interrelated system if you donít know how the
individual parts operate. We donít know how the individual parts
operate. That weíve got to do first of all.
Ferrarini: Economists, in my mind,
pretend that they know how the individual parts operate. And this is
stated in principles texts all over the place. How do you think New
Institutional Economics is going to change the way we teach the
principles of economics?
Well, itís going to change it in
this way. We wonít just talk about the supply and demand in the
determination of prices. Weíre going to talk about what is
demanded and what is supplied and what is priced. It seems very odd
to me. Adam Smith not only introduced the notion of prices
coordinating the economic system but he also pointed out that our
standard of living depends on the real flow of goods and services.
But somehow we donít study the real flow of goods and servicesóIíve
always said that the economists invented the widget. They introduced
it because it doesnít mean anything. And we price widgets. Well,
we want to discover what it is thatís priced. Minasian pointed
this out when he was dealing with radio and television broadcasting
where the marginal cost is zero and economists said that therefore
the price should be zero. Minasian pointed out that if you just
broadcast a squeak, the price would be equal to marginal cost but
you wouldnít get anything from it. By just considering pricing and
not what is being priced, you miss the whole point.
Nye: I take it that youíre in
favor of collections of empirical studies, almost like taxonomies of
different industries, of different groups, of different contracts.
Is that more the sort of issue you like?
Yes. I do not know what problems
people should be investigating. Let them choose their problems. Weíll
gradually develop. You know, how would biology have developed if
people hadnít studied what the heart did, what the kidneys do?
Nye: Part of what determines what
economists study is the demand and supply of economists in academia.
Recent studies have argued that many graduate students believe that
knowledge of the economy is not a prerequisite for being a good
economist. How does one change the way in which they are educated,
to take your perspectives into account?
Well, I donít think itís going
to change all at once, but in different sub-disciplines a change
will take place. It depends on the composition of the people in
them, the persuasiveness of people, the employment policies, the
courses that are given, what articles editors of journals acceptóand
this will be different in different fields.
Nye: But until now this has not
given the results youíve wanted in terms of the profession as a
whole. Is it your view that people are sufficiently disenchanted
with the way things are or that people in the New Institutional
Economics are sufficiently persuasive that they are going to be
successful in making change from within, in reversing some of the
trends of the last twenty years?
Itís no different from any of us.
If we have some sort of illness or disease or problem, you get along
with it, you accept it, and then it gets so bad that you feel you
ought to do something about it. Now I think that in economics people
are now beginning to think that things have got so bad that one
ought to do something about it, and therefore those people who have
always wanted to do something about it have a more sympathetic
audience than in the past. I think that is the present situation.
You get lots of statements to the effect that what economists are
doing is not particularly useful.
Eyzaguirre: Probably development
economics is one of the areas that I think we have advanced the
least. We donít know much about how economies start to develop.
For example, you said that how people contract is very important.
And we havenít done much about comparing how people contract in
developing countries and how they do it in developed countries.
Would you agree that New Institutional Economics has a lot to
contribute in this area?
When you say area, itís the
individuals working who are going to make the contribution, and I
would have thought that we could learn vastly more than we do. I
will give an example from Latin America that always has been of
interest to me. You get countries with high rates of inflation,
extraordinarily high. What forms of contracts do people make in
order to handle this problem? What difficulties does it cause in
contractual arrangements? You would think that it would make things
very difficult. But the sort of answer I get is, "Oh well, we
draw up contracts in a foreign currency." That obviously is not
the whole answer, and Iíve never seen a good study of exactly how
people handle the inflation problem. But I have been looking and I
have been asking and I havenít got the answer. Thatís an obvious
problem and I would like to see people tackle it. But Iím not
expecting to see the goal that I would like to see achieved within
under a hundred years or something like that.
Bullard: According to the Coase
Theorem, if transaction costs are zero then the efficient outcome
will be achieved regardless of the legal rules. Is that always true?
Complex legal rules make judgesí decisions more unpredictable, and
that increases transaction costs in uncertainty, so it is not
entirely true that that you can have any legal rule in this
situation. For example, in torts the fault rules are more complex
than the strict liability rule because the tort attempts to apply a
standard that is not easy to apply and predict. How important is it
to have here simple rules, understanding by simple rules here rules
which are easy to apply for judges and are easy to predict by
I donít know where I ought to go
on this question. We need to think of how the Coase Theorem is going
to be used. That is to say, is one going to use a simplifying
assumption and say "Iím going to ignore this factor."
For example, one might say, "Iím going to study how a bullet
flies through the air, and Iím going to ignore the effect of
gravity." People do this sort of thing; itís very sensible.
But if you say, "Iím going to ignore the effect of gravity in
total," you donít have a bullet. So youíve got to handle
these things in a sensible way, and what I find is in discussions of
the Coase Theorem, people donít handle it in a sensible way. It is
a teaching device. Itís to say, "Letís ignore this for the
time being and see what happens." And if you ignore transaction
costs, you see their importance, you see the arrangements that have
to be made. And then you can say, "Oh, this is what you do in a
world in which there are no transaction costs. Well, now letís
move to one in which we have transaction costs and see how it
operates." Itís a stage in oneís thinking. Thatís the way
I regarded it. But people got stuck on this assumption because, as I
say, by being abstract and unreal, economists feel quite at home
since thatís the world they already inhabit.
Nye: You seem to be a great
adherent of common sense judgement, as opposed to a formal
mechanistic method of deciding what is right and what is wrong. But
common sense is not so common. Is it your view therefore that part
of the tradition of economics that youíd like done is the ability
to transmit to subsequent generations of economists some sense of
judgement of what constitutes right and wrong in abstractions?
You know, I saw a statement once of
Niels Bohr, who is the originator of quantum mechanics, a very great
man. He was always distrustful of formal and mathematical arguments.
When people made such arguments, heíd always say, "Oh youíre
just being logical; youíre not thinking." What we want to do
is to move people from being logical to thinking. If you judge
economists on the basis of their logic, theyíre very good, I mean
theyíre probablyó some of themóeven better than the
physicists, but theyíre not thinking.
Ferrarini: Would you say New
Institutional Economics is changing the economics world as we know
Well, the world actually is very
little affected by what economists do, so I donít think we can say
that a change in the views of economists is affecting the economic
world, although if you ever get a decent economics which is useful
to people in the real world, it will. Thereís a very interesting
caseóI think you probably know about itóa firm, I think in St.
Louis, got rid of its economists because now that you have futures
markets, you donít need them. They were engaged in activities which
the market can now do perfectly well. Well, thereís more to
economics than that.
Nye: You are speaking of
macroeconomic forecasting in particular. Do you see any role for
macroeconomics in the New Institutional Economics? It seems to be
the one field that is essentially left out of the New Institutional
Thatís right. I donít know how
it will be affected, but my feeling is that at the moment we know
that the forecasts are commonly wrong, so we know that theyíre not
doing a very good job in forecasting. That is to say that they donít
understand what the relationships are between these broad
aggregates. My guess is that one of the reasons is that you are
dealing with these broad aggregates. Until you strip them down much
more, you canít really forecast very well. I would expect that the
New Institutional Economics, because it will give data about
individual business activities, would be of help there, though I
know nothing really about macroeconomics.
Nye: Let me ask one last question.
It sounds like youíre an adherent of really traditional price
theory in the tradition that goes back to Adam Smith and perhaps the
old Chicago school as opposed to the new one. What youíre
suggesting is that we return to our roots as joint interest in price
theory and the institutions of market economies, jointly?
Yes. The point Iím going to make
when I talk in the meeting is that economists boast that Darwin got
his ideas from Malthus and Adam Smith. Well, to me, what is
interesting is to see what has happened since Darwin in biology and
what has happened to economics since Adam Smith. The differences are
startling. They really understand how biological processes work in a
way that we do not understand how economic processes work.
Note: Reprinted with
permission from the Newsletter of the International Society for New
Institutional Economics, Volume 2, Number 1 (Spring 1999). http://www.isnie.org
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Why Economics Will Change, 2002
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