Coase on the Role of the Journal of Law & Economics

Josh Wright —  13 January 2011

There is an excellent interview of Ronald Coase conducted in honor of Coase’s 100th birthday and the creation of the Coase China Society.  Its an excellent interview (HT: Knowledge Problem).  Peter Klein offers some observations on the interview as well.  One part that caught my attention was Coase’s discussion of the role of the Journal of Law & Economics in advancing the law and economics movement:

RC (Ronald Coase): One way for the [Coase China] Society to advance the right kind of economics to China, and encourage Chinese economists to do the right kind of work, is to have a journal of its own. When I was editor of the Journal of Law and Economics, I was very active. I would attend seminars and conferences and talk to people to see what kind of research they were doing. I would solicit their articles if I thought they were good ones. And frequently, I would talk to people and encourage them to conduct certain studies with the promise to publish their article.

WN (Wang Ning): This is indeed very different from the way journals are run now.

RC: I do not believe any other journal was run the same way then. Most journal editors wait for submitted articles and use external reviewers to select the articles for publication. This was not the way I worked. I knew what kind of articles I would like to publish, and I went around to find people to write them.

I’ll give you an example. Bernard Siegan came to the University of Chicago Law School as a Fellow and proposed to write a paper on the pros and cons of zoning. I told him instead to find a place where zoning did not exist and to see what happened to land use in comparison to places with zoning. He wrote a great paper about land use in Houston which did not have zoning (The paper was published as “Non-Zoning in Houston, Journal of Law and Economics (1970)).

Another example is Steve’s article on bees. I knew there were contracts between beekeepers and orchard owners in Washington. I asked Steve to investigate it. He did a splendid study (The paper was published as “The Fable of Bees, in Journal of Law and Economics (1973)). …

WN: … But the opportunity cost was probably very high. At the prime time of your research, you devoted yourself to the Journal instead of your own research. You might have written another one or two articles as great as “The Nature of the Firm” or “The Problem of Social Cost.”

RC: I do not regret my decision at all. This was the main attraction for me to come to Chicago. I think this was the only way to develop a subject. If it were not for the Journal, many articles would not have been published or even written.

WN: Based on your experience, what should the Society do if it launches a new journal?

RC: You should have a clear view of what you want to accomplish, what articles you want to publish and what kind of research you want to encourage. You shall not worry about how other people think about your views. You cannot control what other people think. You will not monopolize the whole field. If you believe in your view, you have to be strong to defend it and promote it in the market for ideas until you are convinced that it is proved wrong. This is the only way to be independent.

WN: I totally agree. But I don’t think we have got the second Coase yet. When you started editing the Journal of Law and Economics, you were already well established in the profession. Your view, no matter whatever it was, would be considered seriously and readily command agreement.

RC: I do not think that was the case. I always find myself in disagreement with the prevailing view. Even today, my view of the subject is not accepted by the profession. …

Very interesting.  I cannot think of many examples of journals that take this approach, at least to the same degree as Coase’s JLE.  But that sort of focus was probably necessary to get the law and economics movement off the ground.  Are there examples of journals with this kind of agenda, i.e. where the editor “knew what kind of articles [they] would like to publish, and [] went around to find people to write them”?  Do any of the modern law and economics journals operate this way?  I don’t think so.  But maybe I’m wrong.  What about in empirical legal studies?  David Evans’ very successful Competition Policy International journal operates largely through soliciting articles on antitrust topics from specific authors — and so has some of this flavor, but (and I should disclose I am an editor of that journal) I do not think it has a “mission” in the same sense as Coase’s use of the term in describing the role of the JLE.

Check out the entire interview.

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