Re: Coase's Theorem and Intellectual Property
Tue, 22 Dec 1998 13:43:01 -0700

Robin Hanson writes:
>Coase's original paper gave no theorem, and no one else has bothered to
>write one down because it's almost a tautology: if you assume
>[list of assumptions]

Did Coase in fact simply assume these things in his paper? What did he win the Nobel prize for, then?

>I think the key problem is that most "libertarians" don't like simple
>consequential analyses of legal & political questions, preferring
>axiomatic analyses instead.

That's because we don't believe that the end justifies the means. We prefer a more principled approach to ethical questions. A consequential analysis gives the probable outcome of a given policy, but whether that outcome is considered good or bad often depends on the audience.

>If they
>engage in a consequentialist debate, however, talking about what
>policies lead to death, poverty, illness, etc., libertarians fear they
>may have to admit that in some situations the "wrong" policies may lead
>to better consequences.

I for one haven't the least "fear" on that count. We have more than adequate reason, on nonconsequentialist grounds, to believe that coercion inevitably makes most people, and eventually everyone, worse off regardless of the achievement of any particular good favored by the purveyors of force. Analyses like Coase's serve to buttress this belief by showing how solutions arise on a free market, but don't - and shouldn't - form the foundation of (anti)political philosophy.

>Or they may be forced to invoke an [un]usual consequence
>like "reduces liberty"

So that's not a bad consequence in your book? I predict your judgment would be different if it were specifically *your* liberty that's being reduced instead of (the hidden assumption) someone else's.

>I embrace simple consequential analysis as a basis for policy

So did Machiavelli.

>I accept these features because simple consequential analysis seems
>our best chance for creating broad intellectual consensus on policy

If by an appeal to their material advantage we can persuade the less principled to support freedom, that's better than nothing, I suppose.

>People do form self-serving beliefs about the details of
>which particular situations lead to which simple consequences. But
>evidence slowly erodes these views, and I see much less prospect for
>erosion of disagreements about what axioms to accept or what unusual
>consequences to include in analyses.

IOW you prefer the _status quo_ of opportunistic power struggles to a principled discussion of the ethical foundations of a good society.