- 2017年12月26日14:50 来源：互联网
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The theory of the firm——Coase call
If markets are so good at directing resources, why do firms exist?
The first in our series on big economic ideas.
One morning, an economist went to buy a shirt.
The one he chose was a marvel of global production.
It was made in Malaysia using German machines.
The cloth was woven from Indian cotton grown from seeds developed in America.
The collar lining came from Brazil; the artificial fibre from Portugal.
Millions of shirts of every size and colour are sold every day, writes Paul Seabright, the shirt-buying economist, in his 2004 book, “The Company of Strangers”.
每天都有数百万件各种型号和花色的这种衬衫被售出，这位购买衬衫的经济学家保罗·西布莱特( Paul Seabright)在他2004年的《陌生人的团队》(The Company of Strangers)一书中写道。
No authority is in charge.
The firms that make up the many links in the chain that supplied his shirt had merely obeyed market prices.
Throwing light on the magic of market co-ordination was a mainstay of the “classical” economics of the late-18th and 19th centuries.
Then, in 1937, a paper published by Ronald Coase, a British economist, pointed out a glaring omission.
The standard model of economics did not fit with what goes on within companies.
When an employee switches from one division to another, for instance, he does not do so in response to higher wages, but because he is ordered to.
The question posed by Coase was profound, if awkward for economics: why are some activities directed by market forces and others by firms?
His answer was that firms are a response to the high cost of using markets.
It is often cheaper to direct tasks by fiat than to negotiate and enforce separate contracts for every transaction.
Such “exchange costs” are low in markets for standardised goods, wrote Coase.
A well-defined task can easily be put out to the market, where a contractor is paid a fixed sum for doing it.
The firm comes into its own when simple contracts of this kind will not suffice.
Instead, an employee agrees to follow varied and changing instructions, up to agreed limits, for a fixed salary.
Coase had first set out his theory while working as a lecturer in Dundee, in 1932, having spent the prior academic year in America, visiting factories and businesses.
“The nature of the firm”, his paper, did not appear for another five years, in part because he was reluctant to rush into print.
他的论文——《公司的性质》(The nature of the firm)在那之后的5年中没有出场，部分是因为他不情愿匆忙出版。
Though widely cited today, it went largely unread at first.
But a second paper, “The problem of social cost”, published in 1960, by which time he had moved to America, brought him to prominence.
但是，在他已经移居美国的1960年发表的第二篇论文——《社会成本问题》(The problem of social cost)却让他名声大振。
It argued that private bargaining could resolve social problems, such as pollution, as long as property rights are well defined and transaction costs are low (they rarely are).
He had been asked to expound his new theory earlier that year to a sceptical audience of University of Chicago economists.
By the end of the evening, he had won everyone around.
Coase was invited to join the university's faculty in 1964; and there he remained until his death in 2013 at the age of 102.
In 1991 Coase was awarded the Nobel prize for economics, largely on the strength of these two papers.
But as late as 1972, he lamented that “The nature of the firm” had been “much cited and little used”.
In a strange way, Coase himself was partly to blame.
The idea of transaction costs was such a good catch-all explanation for tricky subjects that it was used to close down further inquiry.
In fact, Coase's paper raised as many difficult questions as it answered.
If firms exist to reduce transaction costs, why have market transactions at all?
Why not further extend the firm's boundaries?
In short, what decides how the economy as a whole is organised?
Almost as soon as Coase had wished for it, a body of more rigorous research on such questions began to flourish.
Central to it was the idea that it is difficult to specify all that is required of a business relationship, so some contracts are necessarily “incomplete”.
Important figures in this field include Oliver Williamson, winner of the Nobel prize in economics in 2009, and Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom, who shared the prize in 2016.
这一领域的重要人物包括2009年诺贝尔经济学奖得主奥利弗·威廉姆森(Oliver Williamson) 以及在2006年分享了这一奖项的奥利弗·哈特(Oliver Hart) 和本格特·霍姆斯特罗姆(Bengt Holmstrom)。
These and other Coase apostles drew on the work of legal theorists in distinguishing between spot transactions and business relations that require longer-term or flexible contracts.