Ronald Coase, qui vient d’avoir 100 ans, est incontestablement l’une des grandes figures de l’économie institutionnelle et de la science économique tout court. Depuis quelque temps, il semble s’intéresser tout particulièrement à l’économie chinoise (voir notamment son dernier ouvrage), à tel point d’ailleurs que vient de voir le jour la « Coase China Society » dont le but est (je cite) « de promouvoir le développement d’une analyse économie de type coasienne en Chine ». C’est dans ce contexte que Coase a récemment donné une interview à l ‘économiste chinois Wang Ning. On y apprend notamment que Coase n’aime pas le terme « d’économie coasienne » :
« WN: You mentioned many times that you do not like the term, « Coasean economics », and prefer to call it simply the « right economics » or « good economics ». What separates the good from bad, the right from wrong?
RC: The bad or wrong economics is what I called the « blackboard economics ». It does not study the real world economy. Instead, its efforts are on an imaginary world that exists only in the mind of economists, for example, the zero-transaction cost world.
Ideas and imaginations are terribly important in economic research or any pursuit of science. But the subject of study has to be real.
WN: Since the Coase China Society is named after you, we cannot avoid using Coasean altogether.
RC: I do not like the term Coasean economics. The right economics that I have in mind, or what you called Coasen economics, is what economics ought to be.
WN: Absolutely. The whole reason to establish the Coase China Society is exactly to bring it about so that the right economics will prevail ».
Coase reprend par ailleurs l’argument hayékien de la dispersion de la connaissance comme obstacle fondamental à toute organisation centralisée d’une économie et souligne l’importance de la concurrence au niveau des idées :
« WN: You remind me a saying made popular by Deng Xiaoping that reform is an experiment. But the experimental approach does not guarantee success. I have in mind Mao’s experiment with socialism, the Great Leap Forward, and so on.
RC: Nothing guarantees success. Given human fallibility, we are bound to make mistakes all the time.
WN: So the question is how we can learn from experiments at minimal cost. Or, how could we structure our economy and society in such a way that collective learning can be facilitated at a bearable price?
RC: That’s right. Hayek made a good point that knowledge was diffused in society and that made central planning impossible.
WN: The diffusion of knowledge creates another social problem: conflict between competing ideas. To my knowledge, only people fight for ideas (religious or ideological), only people are willing to die for their ideas. The animal world might be bloody and uncivilized. But animals, as far as we know, do not fight over ideas.
RC: That’s probably right. That’s why we need a market for ideas. Ideas can compete; people with different ideas do not need to slaughter each other.
WN: That seems to me the number one task for any government: to foster an active market for ideas and maintain civil order.
RC: That’s right. »
Sur le rôle de la Coase China Society :
« WN: This I believe is a very, very important point. You are saying that Coasean economics or what you call the right economics is not developed yet. It is an open subject. And you believe that the Chinese economists have a great chance to develop the subject.
RC: Exactly. I think deference to authority is a bad trait of the Chinese. What Chinese economists should do is to develop their own thinking based on a careful and systematic investigation of the working of the Chinese market economy. My work, « The Nature of the Firm » or « The Problem of Social Cost », does not provide an answer to questions that the Chinese economists should tackle. The most my work or the work of anyone else can do is to suggest possible directions to tackle the problems.
WN: I agree. I think more and more Chinese economists have recognized that they either have to strike out on their own way or have no way to go. The recent financial meltdown and economic crisis, and particularly the lack of coherent response among American economists, have helped them to realize the flaws of mainstream economics.
RC: The main function of the Coase China Society, in my view, is to facilitate the development of independent thinking among Chinese economists. The Society will not be run as a big organization, but a network of many clusters of scholars. Each scholar will pursue what he thinks is the most important question. Each cluster of scholars will form a small community, working on some aspect or some region of the Chinese economy. We shall encourage all kinds of research, historical, statistical, or analytical as long as it sheds light on how the Chinese economy works or changes. This is the only way to get a well-rounded view.
WN: Yes. The Society will collaborate with Chinese universities. A Chinese university can become a corporate member of the Society and specialize in studying the economic problems that are unique to where it is based. For example, Zhejiang University is well positioned to study the development of Wenzhou, Yiwu, and other phenomena unique to Zhejiang province.
RC: One way for the 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. ».