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Bainbridge on the Economics Nobel and Oliver Williamson

Oliver Williamson

Oliver Williamson

My dear friend (for almost 40 years!), Steve Bainbridge, has written much in the area of economics. And he is one of the world’s leading experts on law and economics as it relates to public corporations. Today he offers his take on the announcement this morning of the recipients of Nobel Prize in Economics. He notes:

The 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel has gone to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson. Those of us who thought it should go to Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz are, thus, once again disappointed. (But at least the Committee didn’t repeat a bone-headed choice like Paul Krugman.)

Bainbridge then goes on to provide reviews he had previously written of two of Williamson’s books:

Oliver Williamson is one of the seminal figures of New Institutional Economics. The Mechanisms of Governance is the third book in which Williamson has collected his principal writings, while working them into a coherent whole. The earlier volumes, Markets and Hierarchies and The Economic Institutions of Capitalism, are justly regarded as the foundational texts of the transaction costs economics school of institutional economics. The Mechanisms of Governance seems certain to join them as essentials for any legally literate economist or economically literate lawyer.

Transaction cost economics focuses on institutions, in contrast to neoclassical economics’ focus on individuals, providing simple models that help us understand how institutions function and how they will respond to regulation. We can analogize transaction costs to friction: they are dead weight losses that reduce efficiency. They make transactions more costly and less likely to occur. Among the most important sources of transaction costs is the limited cognitive power of human decisionmakers. Unlike the Chicago School of law and economics, which posits the traditional concept of rational choice, Williamson asserts that rationality is bounded. Put another way, he assumes that economic actors seek to maximize their expected utility, but also that the limitations of human cognition often result in decisions that fail to maximize utility. Decisionmakers inherently have limited memories, computational skills, and other mental tools, which in turn limit their ability to gather and process information. As he demonstrates, this phenomenon, known as bounded rationality, has pervasive implications for understanding how institutions work.

Accordingly, Williamson’s approach provides an analytical framework that is useful not only to economists, but also to lawyers and policymakers. Among other subjects, Williamson tackles such subjects as vertical integration, corporate governance, and industrial organization.

In sum, highly recommended. My only hesitation is Williamson’s unfortunate writing style. Although The Mechanisms of Governance is largely free of the recreational mathematics that plagues much modern economic writing, which is useful for those of us who flunked Differential Equations, it is very jargon-intensive. Worse yet, much of the jargon is self-created. All of which makes reading Williamson an effort-intensive project. Usually the cost-benefit analysis nevertheless comes out in his favor, but sometimes one puzzles out the jargon to find a rather obvious point that could have been conveyed far more simply.

*****
Economic Institutions of Capitalism is a classic work of new institutional economics. In it, Williamson works out his theories of transaction cost economics across an array of interesting economic questions. Most of the covered topics will be of interest not only to economists, but also to lawyers and policymakers. Among other examples, Williamson tackles such subjects as vertical integration, corporate governance, and industrial organizations. Why review a book that was published over a decade ago? Because it’s a classic that still rewards reading.
Williamson’s core idea is the theory of transaction cost economics. We can analogize transaction costs to friction: they are dead weight losses that reduce efficiency. They make transactions more costly and less likely to occur. Among the most important sources of transaction costs is the limited cognitive power of human decisionmakers. Unlike the Chicago School of law and economics, which posits the traditional concept of rational choice, Williamson asserts that rationality is bounded. Put another way, he assumes that economic actors seek to maximize their expected utility, but also that the limitations of human cognition often result in decisions that fail to maximize utility. Decisionmakers inherently have limited memories, computational skills, and other mental tools, which in turn limit their ability to gather and process information. As he demonstrates, this phenomenon, known as bounded rationality, has pervasive implications for understanding how institutions work.

At the policy level, transaction cost analysis is highly relevant to setting legal rules. Suppose a steam locomotive drives by a field of wheat. Sparks from the engine set crops on fire. Should the railroad company be liable? In a world of zero transaction costs, the initial assignment of rights is irrelevant. If the legal rule we choose is inefficient, the parties can bargain around it. In a world of transaction costs, however, the parties may not be able to bargain. This is likely to be true in our example. The railroad travels past the property of many landowners, who put their property to differing uses and put differing values on those uses. Negotiating an optimal solution will all of those owners would be, at best, time consuming and onerous. Hence, choosing the right rule-which is typically the rule the parties would have chosen if they were able to bargain (the so-called hypothetical bargain)-becomes quite important.

In sum, highly recommended. Be warned, however, that you’ll have to put up with Williamson’s unfortunate writing style. Although EIoC is largely free of the recreational mathematics that plagues modern economic writing, which is useful for those of us who flunked Differential Equations, it is very jargon-intensive. Worse yet, much of the jargon is self-created. All of which makes reading Williamson an effort-intensive project. Usually the cost-benefit analysis nevertheless comes out in his favor, but sometimes one puzzles out the jargon to find a rather obvious point that could have been conveyed far more simply. (The business about contracting nodes, pp. 32ff, is a classic example.)

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.