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'The Problem of Social Cost' (1960) by Ronald Coase is an article dealing with economic problem of externalities. It draws from a number of English legal cases and statutes to illustrate Coase's belief that legal rules are only justified by reference to a cost–benefit analysis, and that nuisances that are often regarded as being the fault of one party are more symmetric conflicts between the interests of the two parties. If there are sufficiently low costs of doing a transaction, legal rules would be irrelevant to the maximization of production. Because in the real world there are costs of bargaining and information gathering, legal rules are justified to the extent of their ability to allocate rights to the most efficient right-bearer. Along with an earlier article, The Nature of the Firm, this was cited as being a reason for Coase's award of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1991. As of June 2012, The Problem of Social Cost is the most cited law review article in history.[1]


Coase argued that if we lived in a world without transaction costs, people would bargain with one another to produce the most efficient distribution of resources, regardless of the initial allocation. This is superior to allocation through litigation (Coase 1960). Coase used the example of a nuisance case named Sturges v Bridgman, where a noisy sweetmaker and a quiet doctor were neighbours and went to court to see who should have to move.[2] Coase said that regardless of whether the judge ruled that the sweetmaker had to stop using his machinery, or that the doctor had to put up with it, they could strike a mutually beneficial bargain about who moves that reaches the same outcome of resource distribution.

However, many welfare-maximizing reallocations are often forgone because of the transaction costs involved in bargaining (Coase 1960, p. IV, 7). For instance, the sweetmaker may have many neighbors who claim "nuisance" — some legitimate and some not, that the firm would have to sort through, and some of those neighbors who do claim nuisance may try to hold out for excessive compensation. In these cases, the transaction costs eat away, and ultimately eclipse, the price signals that would have led to the most efficient distribution of resources.

In cases like these with potentially high transaction costs, the law ought to produce an outcome similar to what would result if the transaction costs were eliminated. Hence courts should be guided by the most efficient solution.

The ultimate thesis is that law and regulation are not as important or effective at helping people as lawyers and government planners believe.(Coase 1960, p. V, 9) Coase and others like him wanted a change of approach, to put the burden of proof for positive effects on a government that was intervening in the market, by analysing the costs of action (Coase 1960, p. VIII, 23).

The argument forms the basis of the Coase Theorem as labeled by George Stigler.

Theoretical challenges[edit]

Guido Calabresi in his book The Costs of Accidents (1970)[3] argues that it is still efficient to hold companies liable that produce greater wealth.[4]

In the real world, where people cannot negotiate costlessly, there may be collective action problems of those who caused a nuisance, for instance by smoke emissions from a factory to many neighbouring farms, and so getting together to negotiate effectively can be difficult against a single polluter because of coordination problems. If it is efficient for the farmers to pay the factory to abate the emissions, some of those the farmers may hold off paying their fair share, hoping to get a free ride. The factory may be in a better position to know what measures to take to reduce harm, and can be the cheapest avoider, illustrating Coase's argument.

Cases and statutes[edit]

Coase uses three main examples in his article to attempt to illustrate his points. The first is a fictional cattle herder and a farmer, but the second is the case Sturges v Bridgman[5] and the third is the Railway (Fires) Act 1905.[6] Apart from these main examples, the following cases are referred to.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shapiro, Fred R.; Michelle Pearse (June 2012). "The Most-Cited Law Review Articles of All Time". Michigan Law Review 110 (8). Retrieved 2012-06-02. 
  2. ^ Sturges v Bridgman (1879) 11 Ch D 852
  3. ^ The Cost of Accidents (1970), 135–403
  4. ^ See also Calabresi, Guido (1968). "Transaction Costs, Resource Allocation and Liability Rules—A Comment". Journal of Law and Economics 11 (1): 67–73 [p. 71–73]. doi:10.1086/466644. 
  5. ^ (1960) 3 JLE 1, 8-11, 20–21
  6. ^ (1960) 3 JLE 1, 30–34
  7. ^ (1960) 3 JLE 1, 10–11
  8. ^ (1960) 3 JLE 1, 11–12
  9. ^ (1960) 3 JLE 1, 14
  10. ^ (1960) 3 JLE 1, 20


External links[edit]

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2 news items

Chicago Tribune
Fri, 29 Aug 2014 05:28:46 -0700

Some, drawing on the late, great University of Chicago Nobel Prize winner Ronald Coase's celebrated 1960 paper, "The Problem of Social Cost," have suggested recline-resistant passengers simply pay those in the row ahead not to push back.

Wall Street Pit

Wall Street Pit
Tue, 26 Aug 2014 08:00:00 -0700

He identified that answer in 1960 in his famous paper, The Problem of Social Cost. If the little girl has the property right to recline, then you can pay her not to do so. If you have the property right, you can install a Knee Defender. But who should ...

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