Coase, Meade, and Bees

I covered the Coase theorem in class today and how transaction costs turned out to be an idea worth three nobel prizes (Coase, Buchanan and North).

“Ever since Coase published “The Problem of Social Cost,” economists unconvinced by his analysis have argued that the Coase Theorem is merely a theoretical curiousity, of little or no practical importance in a world where transaction costs are rarely zero. One famous example was in an article by James Meade (who later received a Nobel prize for his work on the economics of international trade).

Meade offered, as an example of the sort of externality problem for which Coase’s approach offered no practical solution, the externalities associated with honey bees. Bees graze on the flowers of various crops, so a farmer who grows crops that produce nectar benefits the beekeepers in the area. The farmer receives none of the benefit himself, so he has an inefficiently low incentive to grow such crops. Since bees cannot be convinced to respect property rights or keep contracts, there is, Meade argued, no practical way to apply Coase’s approach. We must either subsidize farmers who grow nectar rich crops (a negative Pigouvian tax) or accept inefficiency in the joint production of crops and honey.

It turned out that Meade was wrong. In two later articles, supporters of Coase demonstrated that contracts between beekeepers and farmers had been common practice in the industry since early in this century. When the crops were producing nectar and did not need pollenization, beekeepers paid farmers for permission to put their hives in the farmers’ fields. When the crops were producing little nectar but needed pollenization (which increases yields), farmers paid beekeepers. Bees may not respect property rights but they are, like people, lazy, and prefer to forage as close to the hive as possible.

The fact that a Coasian approach solves that particular externality problem does not imply that it will solve all such problems. But the observation that an economist as distinguished as Meade assumed Coase’s approach was of no practical significance in a context where it was actually standard practice suggests that the range of problems to which the Coasian solution is relevant may be much greater than many would at first guess.”