Interview With Ronald Coase

I recently came across this provocative 1997 interview in Reason Magazine with Nobel laureate Ronald Coase.

On pollution:

The pollution problem is always seen as someone who was doing something bad that has to be stopped. To me, pollution is doing something bad and good. People don’t pollute because they like polluting. They do it because it’s a cheaper way of producing something else. The cheaper way of producing something else is the good; the loss in value that you get from the pollution is the bad. You’ve got to compare the two. That’s the way to look at it. It isn’t the way that people today look at it. They think zero pollution is the best situation.

On how rationality as imagined by most economists cannot be applied generally:

I find that people behave in ways that destroy themselves and their families, produce a lot of hardship, and when it comes to policy do the same thing. I hold the view of Frank Knight: In certain areas rationality is enforced; in other areas it’s weakly enforced. You get more irrationality within the family and in consumer behavior than you get, say, in the behavior of firms in their purchases.

On government regulation:

I don’t reject any policy without considering what its results are. If someone says there’s going to be regulation, I don’t say that regulation will be bad. Let’s see. What we discover is that most regulation does produce, or has produced in recent times, a worse result. But I wouldn’t like to say that all regulation would have this effect because one can think of circumstances in which it doesn’t.

On his life after winning the 1991 Nobel Prize in Economics:

It has made it very difficult. Now it takes me a day a week just to read my correspondence, longer to reply to things. It’s a great burden, this Nobel prize. I get letters from all over the world. People writing, sending materials they’ve written, wanting comments on it….Businessmen, scholars, journalists, students–all write me. Occasionally I get letters from people who argue that they can prove that the Coase Theorem is wrong because the Earth is going to end on the year 2003–which, I might say, is an actual case. He’s found the error in the Coase Theorem.

There is much more at the link above. Here is a more recent interview with Coase who is now 101 years old.


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