, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 109-128
Date: 10 Jul 2007

Costly enforcement of property rights and the Coase theorem

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We examine a setting in which property rights are initially ambiguously defined. Whether the parties go to court to remove the ambiguity or bargain and settle before or after trial, they incur enforcement costs. When the parties bargain, a version of the Coase theorem holds. However, despite the additional costs of going to court, other ex-post inefficiencies, and the absence of incomplete information, going to court may ex-ante Pareto dominate settling out of court. This is especially true in dynamic settings, where obtaining a court decision today saves on future enforcement costs. When the parties do not negotiate and go to court, a simple rule for the initial ambiguous assignment of property rights maximizes net surplus.

A paper circulated under the same title and dated 6 March 2000 contained the basic structure examined in this paper, but did not develop many of the results reported here. For comments, we would like to thank participants at the WZB-CEPR contests conference and seminar audiences at the University of Southern California, the University of British Columbia, UC Davis, and UC Riverside.