The Economist Celebrates Ronald Coase's 100th Birthday

Why do firms exist?

For philosophers the great existential question is: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For management theorists the more mundane equivalent is: “Why do firms exist? Why isn’t everything done by the market?”

Today most people live in a market economy, and central planning is remembered as the greatest economic disaster of the 20th century. Yet most people also spend their working lives in centrally planned bureaucracies called firms. They stick with the same employer for years, rather than regularly returning to the jobs market. They labour to fulfil the “strategic plans” of their corporate commissars. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company made him the richest man in America in the 1840s. But it never consisted of more than a handful of people. Today Astor’s company would not register as a blip on the corporate horizon. Firms routinely employ thousands of workers and move billions of dollars-worth of goods and services within their borders.

Why have these “islands of conscious power” survived in the surrounding “ocean of unconscious co-operation”, to borrow a phrase from D.H. Robertson, an economist? Classical economics had little to say about this question. Adam Smith opened “The Wealth of Nations” with a wonderful description of the division of labour in a pin factory, but he said nothing about the bosses who hired the pin-makers or the managers who organised them. Smith’s successors said even less, either ignoring the pin factory entirely or treating it as a tedious black box. They preferred to focus on the sea rather than the islands.

Who knows the secret of the black box?

The man who restored the pin factory to its rightful place at the heart of economic theory celebrates his 100th birthday on December 29th. The economics profession was slow to recognise Ronald Coase’s genius. He first expounded his thinking about the firm in a lecture in Dundee in 1932, when he was just 21 years old. Nobody much listened. He published “The Nature of the Firm” five years later. It went largely unread.

But Mr Coase laboured on regardless: a second seminal article on “The Problem of Social Cost” laid the intellectual foundations of the deregulation revolution of the 1980s. Eventually, Mr Coase acquired an army of followers, such as Oliver Williamson, who fleshed out his ideas. In 1991, aged 80, he was awarded a Nobel prize. Far from resting on his laurels, Mr Coase will publish a new book in 2011, with Ning Wang of Arizona State University, on “How China Became Capitalist”.

Read more at The Economist