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張五常 | 7th Jan 2011 | 一般 | (2776 Reads)

(本博客管理員按:以下是科斯的助手王寧最近採訪科斯的內容整理,已發佈在芝加哥大學的網頁上。)

 

Interview with Professor RonaldCoase
 
Author:Wang Ning 
 

Chicago, IL 60657
USA


The following interview was conductedby Wang Ning on December 28 and 29, 2010 at Chicago. On December29, the Unirule Institute of China organized a conference inBeijing, "Coase and China", to celebrate the 100th birthday ofProfessor Ronald Coase, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in1991 for "his discovery and clarification of the significance oftransaction costs and property rights for the institutionalstructure and functioning of the economy".

Professor Coase was born in Londonin 1910, educated and, later taught, at the London School ofEconomics before migrating to the United States in 1950. While inthe United States, he taught at University of Buffalo andUniversity of Virginia before moving to the University of Chicagoto take on the editorship of the Journal of Law and Economics.Professor Coase retired from the University of Chicago Law Schoolin 1982.

Professor Coase has long beeninterested in China ever since he read Marco Polo as a schoolboy.In the early 1980s, Professor Coase urged Steven N.S. Cheung to goto University of Hong Kong, which he thought was the best place tostudy China's newly launched economic reform. In 1993, ProfessorCoase invited Sheng Hong as a visiting scholar to the University ofChicago Law School. More recently, Professor Coase organized and,through the Coase Foundation, funded the 2008 Chicago Conference onChina's Market Transformation and the 2010 Chicago Workshop on theIndustrial Structure of Production. The 2008 Conference broughttogether scholars (from China and North America, includingeconomists, sociologists, political scientists, economichistorians, and legal scholars), Chinese government officials, andentrepreneurs to investigate China's transition to a market economywith Chinese characteristics. The 2010 Workshop explored the studyof the industrial structure of production in China. How ChinaBecame Capitalist, a book co-authored with Ning Wang, will bejointly published by Palgrave /Macmillan and the Institute ofEconomic Affairs in 2011.

The newly established Coase ChinaSociety aims to promote the development of Coasean economics inChina, which Professor Coase prefers to call the "right economics".According to Professor Coase, the right economics should study theworking of the real world economy. If economics is properlyconducted, Professor Coase believes, it shall be able to tell howthe economic system works and how to improve it if something goeswrong. In Coase's view, economics has much to learn from modernbiological and medical sciences which study how human body worksfrom the cell level up to the organism level, how different organsfunction in a coordinated manner, and what can be done if somethingneeds a fix.

In the following interview,Professor Coase explains the mission of the Coase China Society andhis vision of economics and the part to be played by Chineseeconomists.

WN (Wang Ning): First of all,happy birthday, professor Coase. As you know, Chinese economistsare now holding a Conference in Beijing, "Coase and China", tocelebrate your 100th birthday. To my knowledge, no other westerneconomist, probably with the exception of Karl Marx, has ever beenso honored in China. The reason is twofold. It first has to do withthe powerful influence of your ideas. Second, you clearly have aspecial feeling toward China. In Chinese culture, reciprocity is ahigh virtue. The first question many Chinese people have in mindis, what got you interested in China?

RC (Ronald Coase): I don't knowwhy I am interested in China. I have been interested for a longtime, too long for me to remember. I read Marco Polo many yearsago, probably as a schoolboy. It was an impressive book. I don'tthink anyone can read the book without being impressed by theChinese civilization. It went back many centuries. It made greatachievements long before the rise of the West. That impressionstayed with me forever.

WN: Did your relationship withSteven Cheung have any impact on your perception ofChina?

RC: None. I had the view aboutChina long before I knew any Chinese. Of course, I had a very goodrelation with Steve. He spent two years at Chicago many years agoafter his study at UCLA. We talked and we quickly became goodfriends. That was one of the best times in my whole life. I thinkit was beneficial for both of us. Unfortunately, Steve went toUniversity of Washington (Seattle) after two years. I alwaysthought that was a mistake.

WN: I remember Steve told me thatthat was probably the only decision he later regretted.

RC: Steve somewhere said that hegrew up in Hong Kong and missed water. But that didn't seem to meto be a good reason.

WN: Another reason I rememberSteve gave somewhere in his writing was that he wanted to beindependent. If he stayed at Chicago, he was afraid that he couldnot develop his own thinking give the strong presence of MiltonFriedman, George Stigler, and other weighty figures atChicago.

RC: That wouldn't happen. I wasable to do my work at Chicago just as freely as I was atBuffalo.

WN: I think you were right. GivenSteve's character, I don't think anyone could stop him fromdeveloping his own thought.

RC: I am glad that I laterstrongly urged Steve to go to Hong Kong. I did not know how muchgood it would do. But given Steve's influence in China, I think itwas a good move.

WN: Steve certainly played acritical role in developing and explaining your ideas in China.From that point of view, his move to Seattle also helped toinfluence people like Doug North and Yoram Barzel. I remember Northsaid many times that he learned transaction cost economics fromSteve, and Steve learned from you.

RC: I never doubted that Stevewould do great work no matter where he was. And good economics willattract good economists. But if he stayed in Chicago, he could havedone much more.

WN: You are probably right. IfSteve stayed, the Coase-Cheung team would last for more than adecade at Chicago even before Steve went back to Hong Kong. Givenyour character, you would not be aggressive enough to push yourvision of economics at Chicago. But if you were teamed up withSteve, what you called good economics probably would have prevailedin Chicago.

RC: That's right.

WN: You mentioned many times thatyou do not like the term, "Coasean economics", and prefer to callit simply the "right economics" or "goodeconomics".  What separates the good from bad, theright from wrong?

RC: The bad or wrong economics iswhat I called the "blackboard economics". It does not study thereal world economy. Instead, its efforts are on an imaginary worldthat exists only in the mind of economists, for example, thezero-transaction cost world.

Ideas and imaginations areterribly important in economic research or any pursuit of science.But the subject of study has to be real.

WN: Since the Coase China Societyis named after you, we cannot avoid using Coaseanaltogether.

RC: I do not like the term Coaseaneconomics. The right economics that I have in mind, or what youcalled Coasen economics, is what economics ought to be.

WN: Absolutely. The whole reasonto establish the Coase China Society is exactly to bring it aboutso that the right economics will prevail.

WN: The second question manyChinese have in mind for you is, what you think other countries canlearn from the Chinese experience of market transformation? Isthere any general lesson to be learned from the Chinamodel?

RC: I don't know. You don't knowwhat you can learn until you try to learn.

WN: I think this point iscritically important. If I understood correctly, you are sayingthat learning from China or any other example is not like learningfrom a book or cooking recipe, but more like learning by doing. Ifthe Chinese economic reform is an experiment, learning from Chinaremains an experiment. Different countries will learn differentthings even if they learn from the same model.

RC: Exactly. What we do is allexperiment.

WN: You remind me a saying madepopular by Deng Xiaoping that reform is an experiment. But theexperimental approach does not guarantee success. I have in mindMao's experiment with socialism, the Great Leap Forward, and soon.

RC: Nothing guarantees success.Given human fallibility, we are bound to make mistakes all thetime.

WN: So the question is how we canlearn from experiments at minimal cost. Or, how could we structureour economy and society in such a way that collective learning canbe facilitated at a bearable price?

RC: That's right. Hayek made agood point that knowledge was diffused in society and that madecentral planning impossible.

WN: The diffusion of knowledgecreates another social problem: conflict between competing ideas.To my knowledge, only people fight for ideas (religious orideological), only people are willing to die for their ideas. Theanimal world might be bloody and uncivilized. But animals, as faras we know, do not fight over ideas. 

RC:  That'sprobably right. That's why we need a market for ideas. Ideas cancompete; people with different ideas do not need to slaughter eachother.

WN: That seems to me the numberone task for any government: to foster an active market for ideasand maintain civil order.

RC: That's right.

WN: You have said many times thatthe Chinese economic reform was extraordinary and unexpected. Thethird question is what you think was mainly responsible for thisunexpected transformation?

RC: We explain this in our book(How China Became Capitalist). The events were unexpected and couldnot be stated in advance. It must have something to do with certainpersonalities. If Deng never existed, the story would be quitedifferent. Those developments, or what we called marginalrevolutions in the book, such as the household responsibilitysystem and the Special Economic Zones, might beexpected.  But when they happened, we weresurprised.

WN: Indeed, the Chinese were alsosurprised themselves.

WN: Here comes the fourthquestion. You have high hopes that the future of economics is inChina. What makes you think so?

RC: It is obvious. It is the sizeof Chinese population. A new idea is always accepted only by asmall proportion of the population. But a small proportion of theChinese is a big number.

It also has to do with the factthat China is now open for new ideas. The old way of thinking hasbeen discredited. But new ways have not been developed yet. Bothnew good economics and new bad economics have a great chance inChina. We want to see that good economics prevails.

China has another advantage. As wehave argued in our book, there is still too much to learn from theChinese experience of market transformation. There is a lot more tolearn from how the market economy with Chinese characteristicsoperates and evolves over time. If the Chinese economists rise upto the challenge, they will contribute to the development ofeconomics.

Here is a letter to Sheng Hong Iwrote in 1988. There I said that I had a "firm believe that anunderstanding of what is happening, and has happened, in China willgreatly help us to improve and enrich our analysis of the influenceof the institutional structure on the working of the economicsystem". I still hold the belief. Indeed, the belief has becomeeven stronger over time.

In the past, economics was oncemainly a British subject. Now it is a subject dominated by theAmericans. It will be a Chinese subject if the Chinese economistsadopt the right attitude.

WN: I am deeply moved by what youjust said. That will give Chinese economists a strong motivationand confidence to develop their own way of thinking.

RC: That's exactly what they oughtto do. That's another reason that I do not like the term Coaseaneconomics. If the right kind of economics that I have in mind isfirst developed in China, it will be rightly called the Chineseschool of economics by future historians.

WN: This I believe is a very, veryimportant point. You are saying that Coasean economics or what youcall the right economics is not developed yet. It is an opensubject. And you believe that the Chinese economists have a greatchance to develop the subject.

RC: Exactly. I think deference toauthority is a bad trait of the Chinese. What Chinese economistsshould do is to develop their own thinking based on a careful andsystematic investigation of the working of the Chinese marketeconomy. My work, "The Nature of the Firm" or "The Problem ofSocial Cost", does not provide an answer to questions that theChinese economists should tackle. The most my work or the work ofanyone else can do is to suggest possible directions to tackle theproblems.

WN: I agree. I think more and moreChinese economists have recognized that they either have to strikeout on their own way or have no way to go. The recent financialmeltdown and economic crisis, and particularly the lack of coherentresponse among American economists, have helped them to realize theflaws of mainstream economics.

RC: The main function of the CoaseChina Society, in my view, is to facilitate the development ofindependent thinking among Chinese economists. The Society will notbe run as a big organization, but a network of many clusters ofscholars. Each scholar will pursue what he thinks is the mostimportant question. Each cluster of scholars will form a smallcommunity, working on some aspect or some region of the Chineseeconomy. We shall encourage all kinds of research, historical,statistical, or analytical as long as it sheds light on how theChinese economy works or changes. This is the only way to get awell-rounded view.

WN: Yes. The Society willcollaborate with Chinese universities. A Chinese university canbecome a corporate member of the Society and specialize in studyingthe economic problems that are unique to where it is based. Forexample, Zhejiang University is well positioned to study thedevelopment of Wenzhou, Yiwu, and other phenomena unique toZhejiang province. 

RC: One way for the Society toadvance the right kind of economics to China, and encourage Chineseeconomists to do the right kind of work, is to have a journal ofits own. When I was editor of the Journal of Law and Economics, Iwas very active. I would attend seminars and conferences and talkto people to see what kind of research they were doing. I wouldsolicit their articles if I thought they were good ones. Andfrequently, I would talk to people and encourage them to conductcertain studies with the promise to publish theirarticle.

WN: This is indeed very differentfrom the way journals are run now.

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

I』ll give you an example. BernardSiegan came to the University of Chicago Law School as a Fellow andproposed to write a paper on the pros and cons of zoning. I toldhim instead to find a place where zoning did not exist and to seewhat happened to land use in comparison to places with zoning. Hewrote a great paper about land use in Houston which did not havezoning (The paper was published as "Non-Zoning in Houston, Journalof Law and Economics (1970)).

Another example is Steve's articleon bees. I knew there were contracts between beekeepers and orchardowners in Washington. I asked Steve to investigate it. He did asplendid study (The paper was published as "The Fable of Bees, inJournal of Law and Economics (1973)).

Richard Sandor wrote a paper onthe setup of a plywood future contract, which, however, failed.Sandor was very upset because no one would publish a paper on afailed market. I was not upset at all since most markets failed.The paper just showed how difficult it was to set up a market. Ipublished his paper (The paper appeared as "Innovation by anExchange: A Case Study of the Development of the Plywood FutureContract, Journal of Law and Economics (1973)).

WN: I think this is one of thegreatest public services you have done to the profession. But theopportunity cost was probably very high. At the prime time of yourresearch, you devoted yourself to the Journal instead of your ownresearch. You might have written another one or two articles asgreat as "The Nature of the Firm" or "The Problem of SocialCost."

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

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

RC: You should have a clear viewof what you want to accomplish, what articles you want to publishand what kind of research you want to encourage. You shall notworry about how other people think about your views. You cannotcontrol what other people think. You will not monopolize the wholefield. If you believe in your view, you have to be strong to defendit and promote it in the market for ideas until you are convincedthat it is proved wrong. This is the only way to beindependent.

WN: I totally agree. But I don'tthink we have got the second Coase yet. When you started editingthe Journal of Law and Economics, you were already well establishedin the profession. Your view, no matter whatever it was, would beconsidered seriously and readily command agreement.

RC:  I do notthink that was the case. I always find myself in disagreement withthe prevailing view. Even today, my view of the subject is notaccepted by the profession. You certainly do not need a secondCoase to make the Coase China Society successful. Instead, you willhave a Cheung, or Wang, or some other Chinese name.

WN:  I have threemore questions left. The first one is, many people have said thatChina has succeeded in transforming itself from a planned economyto a market economy without private property rights. How could thathappen?

RC: All economies have differentsystems of property rights. The common classification of privateversus public property rights, the former associated withcapitalism and the latter with socialism, is too simplified a view.Britain and America have different systems of property rights.China under Mao and the Soviet Union were also different in theways property rights were structured. A good system of propertyrights is the one that economic resources, including human talents,are efficiently utilized. I think China will develop its own systemof property rights. Whether you call it socialist or capitalistdoes not matter.

WN: Here comes the secondquestion. Your 100th birthday is approaching, what you have to sayto Chinese economists?

RC: What I am going to say havenothing to do with my birthday. All they should do is to study theChinese economy based on how it actually works. It might behistorical, or statistical, or analytical. Whatever form it takes,it has to be based on the working of the Chineseeconomy.

WN: This seems a simpletask.

RC: It certainly is not somethinglike E = MC2. But the way the economic system works is complicated.It has many components. Each component is itself a mini-system. Theway they interact with each other and the whole system works isvery complex. A regression with aggregated statistical data willnot tell you much about the way the economy works.

WN: This is the last question.What you hope the Coase China Society should do in the nearfuture?

RC: The Society should get itrunning as soon as possible. I mean it should get the researchgoing in China. I have met many Chinese economists and read many oftheir works. They are very capable and some of their work is verypromising. The Society will succeed as long as it gets the Chineseeconomists to study the working of the Chinese economy. If ajournal helps, we will launch a journal. If workshops orconferences are needed, we will run workshops and conferences. Ifit needs funding, we will get funding. I expect the Chinesegovernment and Chinese businessmen to be very supportive of theSociety and eager to fund the research.

WN: Thank you very much, professorCoase. I cannot wait to share your enthusiasm and high hopes withmy colleagues in China. Your work and your love for China haveinspired many Chinese economists and won their deep respect. I amsure the Coase China Society will live up to yourexpectation.

RC: I am now 100 years old. At mystage, life requires a constant effort. As I told you many times,do not get old. But I have no doubt that Chinese economists will dothe right kind of work, and make their contribution to advanceeconomics. This hope keeps me happy and I thank them.