Epstein on Coase

Ronald Coase: One of a Kind

The news of Ronald Coase’s passing will doubtless bring forth well-deserved tributes for his massive contributions to the field of economics. I shall touch on them briefly here, but write primarily to tell something about the Ronald Coase whom I knew reasonably well for the past 41 years, since I first set foot in Chicago as a visiting associate professor in the fall of 1972.

Today, it might seem odd that I went through four years of legal education -- at both Oxford and Yale, between the years 1964 and 1968 -- and never once heard mention of the name Ronald Coase. The point, in retrospect, seems doubly odd because three of Coase’s greatest articles, The Nature of the Firm (1937), The Federal Communications Commission, and The Problem of Social Cost (1960) had been published before I entered law school, yet they were not part of the mainstream body of work to which the legal profession turned.

That ignorance did not remain for long. Shortly after I arrived at the University of Southern California in the summer of 1968, I ran into Michael Levine (who is now with me at NYU Law School) in Dean Dorothy Nelson’s office, and somehow the conversation turned to the year that he had just spent as a Law and Economics Fellow at the University of Chicago. Mention of Ronald brought forth a mention of the Coase Theorem and I remember my puzzled reaction to Levine’s insistence that this was an important piece of work that everyone had to take into account in dealing with legal institutions.

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