Forbes Wishes Ronald Coase a Happy 101st Birthday
In my second semester at the University of Michigan Law School in 1996, my Torts professor – who currently works for the White House – asked the class if we had heard of Ronald Coase. My classmate Kelly, who was sitting near the front of a large, rectangular shaped-room adorned with rows of semi-circular desks, raised her hand.
During law school, most of my classmates fell somewhere in a spectrum: at least in the first year, when most of us still cared about our grades and getting on to law review. On one end sat the outspoken students who extolled their opinions with intimidating self-confidence. On the other end sat the diffident ones who didn’t speak up unless asked to. As a self-assured and mild-mannered native of North Dakota, Kelly stood somewhere in the middle.
With this in mind, her furious reply to the question shocked me. Coase, she snapped, (I’m paraphrasing from memory but Kelly recently confirmed the essence of her statement) represented everything that was amoral and indecent about the law. After all, the principles unleashed by Coase, as they evolved by the time I had arrived in law school, seemed to ignore if not outright disembowel most concepts of fairness, morality, and justice from the law.
Kelly was not alone. For many law students, Coase seemed equally incomprehensible if not outrageous. As the father of the “law and economics” movement, however, Coase also happened to be one of the most influential legal thinkers of the past half century.
Yet, few people other than lawyers or economists appreciate his influence not just over the law but our everyday lives.