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Between LSE and Cambridge: Accounting for Ronald Coase’s Fascination with Alfred Marshall

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Marshall and the Marshallian Heritage

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in the History of Economic Thought ((PHET))

Abstract

For most economists at Chicago, Marshall was simply an input, the supplier of an approach to economic analysis. For Ronald Coase, however, Marshall was much more than this—a subject of fascination and, at times, almost a reverence and obsession. Trained in the late 1920s and early 1930s at the London School of Economics, where indifference and even antipathy toward Marshall was widespread, and a member of the LSE faculty from 1935 until his departure for the United States in 1951, Coase would not have ranked high on the list of those expected to become Marshall’s first biographer—a project that Coase finally abandoned only late in life—let alone one who drew on Marshall’s methodological approach to castigate both modern economics generally and certain of his (“Marshallian”) Chicago colleagues in particular. Coase’s affinity for Marshall, whom he considered both a “great economist” and a “flawed human being,” requires some explanation, clues toward which can be found both in his published writings and in the voluminous materials from his researches on Marshall now available in Coase’s archives. This paper examines Coase’s biographical work on Marshall and his discussions of Marshall’s economics for clues as to the sources of Coase’s affinity for Marshall. The evidence suggests explanations that are at once personal and professional.

Ning Wang, Coase’s student, co-author, and dear friend has been very forthcoming in providing me with information that goes beyond what is found in the archives and Coase’s published writings. I have also benefitted from the comments of Roger Backhouse, Katia Caldari, Marco Dardi, Elodie Bertrand, Geoff Harcourt, Megan Stevens, and Stephen Stigler. The assistance of the staff at the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library is gratefully acknowledged.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Coase had intended to study history but was prevented from doing so by his lack of knowledge of Latin. “Ronald Coase—Biographical,” https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/1991/coase-bio.html.

  2. 2.

    These include Marshall’s lectures on Progress and Poverty (Marshall 1969), three articles on the appointment of Pigou as Marshall’s successor (by himself, Bob Coats, and Trevor W. Jones) and a related piece by John C. Wood on “Marshall and the Tariff Reform Campaign of 1903,” as well as his own article, “Marshall on Method” and a comment on it by Hans Brems dealing with “Marshall and Mathematics.”

  3. 3.

    On Coase and the LSE, see, e.g., Coase (1982a), Medema (1994), Bertrand (2015b), and Thomas (2016). On Coase and Chicago, see Medema (2020), as well as Posner (1993b).

  4. 4.

    The Ronald H. Coase Papers (hereafter cited as RHC Box-Folder) are housed in the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library.

  5. 5.

    Coase to Whitaker, October 16, 1967, RHC 105-5.

  6. 6.

    Coats to Coase, August 18, 1965, RHC 105-3.

  7. 7.

    Coase to Whitaker, October 16, 1967, RHC 105-5. The Keynes “memoir” to which Coase refers is Keynes (1924).

  8. 8.

    The transcription of Marshall’s lectures and the accompanying discussion also included, as appendices, an exchange of letters between Alfred R. Wallace and Marshall, and a report on Henry George’s speech at Oxford, in which Marshall challenged George’s views.

  9. 9.

    Marshall’s correspondence with his mother is reprinted in Whitaker (1996, vol. 1, 36–84). For a discussion of his American travels, see Groenewegen (1995, 193–203).

  10. 10.

    Coase to Whitaker, October 16, 1967, RHC 105-5.

  11. 11.

    Copies of some of this correspondence can be found in RHC 22-8. Coase provides a commentary on this trip and his correspondence with Fowler in “The Nature of the Firm: Origin” (1988d). Coase’s archives also include correspondence from this trip with Marian Hartung (his future wife) and with his parents. This author has not had occasion to consult this familial correspondence, but the fact that Coase does not refer to it in his 1988 retrospective on the origins of his work on the firm suggests that it does not shed light on the lessons for economics gleaned from his travels.

  12. 12.

    Of more personal consequence is the fact that Coase met his future wife, Marian Hartung, on this trip.

  13. 13.

    Groenewegen to Coase, 20 September 1990, RHC 104-11. Groenewegen (1995, 317–21) provides overview of the lecture notes.

  14. 14.

    See letter from E.A.G. Robinson to Coase, March 2, 1965, RHC 104-13.

  15. 15.

    A copy of these lectures can be found in RHC 110-18.

  16. 16.

    Coase to Whitaker, October 16, 1967, RHC 105-5.

  17. 17.

    Coase to Whitaker, October 16, 1967, RHC 105-5.

  18. 18.

    Coase to Whitaker, October 16, 1967, RHC 105-5. To the best of this author’s knowledge, these lectures remain unpublished.

  19. 19.

    The original note, which runs to only two paragraphs, was published in the History of Economics Society Bulletin (now the Journal of the History of Economic Thought) in 1986. See Coase (1986).

  20. 20.

    Richard Posner (1993a, b) offers a less charitable view of Coase’s preferred methods. This author’s contention that this research “shows Coase at his best” is likely to be subject to the same criticism that Posner leveled against Coase for opining that Stigler “is seen at his best” in his studies of the history of economic thought (Coase 1991b, 472). For discussions of Coase’s studies of public utilities and regulated industries, see Medema (1994) and Groenewegen and de Vries (2016).

  21. 21.

    Coase to Society of Geneologists, November 13, 1967; Coase to C.M. MacKay, June 17, 1968; C.M. MacKay to Coase July 18, 1968; RHC 104-5.

  22. 22.

    Coase’s research on Marshall’s ancestry was supported in part by Liberty Fund.

  23. 23.

    This correspondence with his London solicitor, a Mr. Michael Balin, can be found in RHC 17-9. These difficulties are also described in correspondence with the grantor, Liberty Fund. See RHC 26-12.

  24. 24.

    Guillebaud to Coase, June 28, 1967, RHC 104-9. Unfortunately, Guillebaud, who died in 1971, did not live to see the fruits of Coase’s labors.

  25. 25.

    Coase, in a fit of sarcasm, opines that “we can almost hear the clink of the teacups on the vicarage lawns” in these assessments (Coase 1990, 9).

  26. 26.

    Recent research by Megan Stevens (2020), the great-great granddaughter of Alfred Marshall’s uncle, Charles Marshall (about whom more below), challenges certain of Coase’s claims regarding Marshall’s family and ancestry. The present paper takes no position as between Coase’s claims and those made by Stevens. It bears noting, however, that if Stevens’ claims are correct, they only reinforce the conclusions about Coase’s motivations, discussed below.

  27. 27.

    Coase to Groenewegen, May 31, 1990, RHC 23-8.

  28. 28.

    Keynes compares Marshall’s father favorably with James Mill but, says Coase, “James Mill he was not” (Coase to Groenewegen, May 31, 1990, RHC 23-8).

  29. 29.

    The reference in this quote is to Keynes (1924, 329).

  30. 30.

    Coase to Groenewegen, February 27, 1989, RHC 23-8. But within two months of this letter, Coase had decided to fold that material into his paper on Marshall’s family and ancestry. See Coase to Groenewegen, April 6, 1989, RHC 23-8, as well as Coase (1990). In addition to providing the legacy that funded Marshall’s 1875 travel to the U.S., Uncle Charles also provided a loan that financed Marshall’s studies at Cambridge.

  31. 31.

    On this subject in particular, see Stevens (2020).

  32. 32.

    Keynes, in fact, mentions nothing about either Louisa or her husband, William Marshall. William Marshall squandered a significant inheritance, and both Coase and Groenewegen conjecture that they were effectively omitted from the family history going forward. See Coase (1990, 22–23) and Groenewegen (1995, 33–34).

  33. 33.

    Robert Thornton, Henry’s great-great grandfather, was Alfred’s great-great-great grandfather (Coase 1990, 21–22). E.M. Forster was Henry Thornton’s great-grandson.

  34. 34.

    Specifically, Marshall was born at 66 Charlotte Row, Bermondsey.

  35. 35.

    See also Coase (1994, 149).

  36. 36.

    Sturges v. Bridgman, 11 Ch. D. (1879) at 865, quoted in Coase (1984, 521n.11). Coase went on to say that “Clapham could well have been substituted for Belgrave Square” (1984, 521n.11). In his most recent discussion of Marshall’s birthplace, Coase called Bermondsey, “a very undesirable place in which to live.” Coase, “Alfred Marshall and his place of birth,” nd, RHC 104-8. Though this document is not dated, its contents make clear that it was written after Coase’s 1994 commentary on Marshall’s birthplace had been published.

  37. 37.

    Coase reports that the Marshalls had moved from Bermondsey to Sydenham by 1846 and moved from there to Clapham sometime between 1846 and 1850.

  38. 38.

    Coase seems to have believed that it was Mary Paley Marshall who had provided at least some of this information to the census taker, which led Stephen Stigler to suggest to Coase that Mary may have been complicit in the cover-up and that she may have “embellished the detail in a favorable direction either consciously or subconsciously” in order to protect her husband. Stephen Stigler to Coase, July 7, 1993, RHC 104-11.

  39. 39.

    Making Marshall’s deception regarding the Census all the more ironic is the fact that, in 1890, he provided testimony to the Parliamentary committee looking into the Census-taking process. See Groenewegen, “Marshall’s evidence before the Committee appointed to inquire into the taking of the Census (1890),” Marshall Studies Bulletin 9 (2005). https://www.disei.unifi.it/upload/sub/pubblicazioni/msb/2005/groenewegen9.pdf.

  40. 40.

    See also Coase (1984, 521–22).

  41. 41.

    Ning Wang to the author, May 16, 2018.

  42. 42.

    Here, Keynes was simply repeating the information he had been given by Mary Paley Marshall.

  43. 43.

    Marshall’s father desperately wanted Marshall to study classics at Oxford, and Marshall was only able to go up to Cambridge for mathematics studies thanks to a loan from his Uncle Charles (Coase 1984, 524).

  44. 44.

    Coase went on to say that “Marshall’s father was completely convinced of the correctness of his own narrow views, had little regard for the feelings and wishes of others, and thought it right to control the actions of those in his power by ‘an extremely severe discipline’” (1984, 527).

  45. 45.

    Ning Wang to the author, May 16, 2018.

  46. 46.

    See also Coase (1975, 26).

  47. 47.

    Ning Wang to the author, May 16, 2018.

  48. 48.

    One wonders whether Coase was thinking of Marshall and his mother’s influence on him when Coase wrote in his Nobel autobiography of his own mother, “My mother taught me to be honest and truthful and although it is impossible to escape some degree of self-deception, my endeavours to follow her precepts have, I believe, lent some strength to my writing” (1991a).

  49. 49.

    Ning Wang to the author, May 16, 2018.

  50. 50.

    Those, of course, are “The Nature of the Firm” (1937) and “The Problem of Social Cost” (1960).

  51. 51.

    Coase to Tullberg, May 12, 1989, RHC 104-10.

  52. 52.

    See Coase (1988b, c, d).

  53. 53.

    Coase to Groenewegen, February 27, 1989, RHC 23-8.

  54. 54.

    Coase to Tullberg, October 22, 1990, RHC 104-11.

  55. 55.

    Coase to Groenewegen, March 31, 1992, RHC 23-8.

  56. 56.

    In Coase’s words, “Keynes is sketchy—and wrong.” Coase to Whitaker, October 16, 1967, RHC 105-5.

  57. 57.

    Groenewegen to Coase, September 20, 1990; Coase to Groenwegen, October 22, 1990; RHC 104-11.

  58. 58.

    Coase to Tullberg, 22 October 1990, RHC 104-11. As noted above, Coase reports that Guillebaud once told him that Marshall “suffered … the agonies of hell when he discovered that he had made a mistake” (1984, 527). Coase (1984, 526–27) suggests that this attribute of Marshall was a result of his father’s severe discipline.

  59. 59.

    Buchanan (1969) had earlier lauded Coase’s contribution to the development of the LSE theory of subjective opportunity costs.

  60. 60.

    See Coase (1938). Bertrand (2015a) provides further illustrations of this seeming cost schizophrenia found throughout Coase’s writings. See also Medema (1994, ch. 3).

  61. 61.

    Industry and Trade deals with the industrialization process, the organization of industry, and the effects of these on economic well-being and is both more historical and less theoretical than the Principles.

  62. 62.

    See, for example, statements quoted in the previous section of this paper, as well as the commentary below.

  63. 63.

    See, e.g., in addition to the references cited herein, Coase (1966, 1970, 1988a, 1992, 2006, 2012), as well as Bertrand (2016), Medema (1994, 1995), and Medema and Zerbe (1997).

  64. 64.

    Quoting Robbins (1932, 65).

  65. 65.

    Quoting a letter from Marshall to J.N. Keynes, September 20, 1890. Reprinted as Letter 321 in Whitaker (1996, vol. 1, 338–39).

  66. 66.

    Note by Mary Paley Marshall, nd, RHC 104-6.

  67. 67.

    Quoting a letter from Marshall to J.N. Keynes, August 1889. Reprinted as Letter 268 in Whitaker (1996, vol. 1, 293–96).

  68. 68.

    Marshall to W.S. Hewins, 12 October 1899. Reprinted as Letter 597 in Whitaker (1996, vol. 2, 256–59).

  69. 69.

    See Coase (1966) and the several other references to his work in note 63, above.

  70. 70.

    Posner (2011) has more recently softened his stance toward Coase’s methodological approach.

  71. 71.

    Coase, “The Place of Economics,” nd, mimeo, RHC 58-14. See also Coase (1978, 207). “The Place of Economics” may be an early draft of the introduction for the collection that was eventually published as Essays on Economics and Economists (1994). The volume that was eventually published, though, has a very different introduction.

  72. 72.

    It is not clear whether Coase was aware of this link between Stigler’s definition and Knight’s conception of the subject, laid out in The Economic Organization (1933). Knight, like Coase, was not fond of the Robbins’ definition. See Knight (1934). Curiously, the earlier editions of Stigler’s text had presented a Robbins-type definition. Of course, Stigler’s own work in later years moved much closer to the Robbins-Becker conception of the subject, making it ironic that Coase appealed to Stigler here.

  73. 73.

    Coase, “The Place of Economics,” nd, mimeo, RHC 58-14. On the history of the definition economics, see Backhouse and Medema (2009a, b), the latter of which provides an extensive discussion of the gradual acceptance of the Robbins definition.

  74. 74.

    Coase, “The Place of Economics,” nd, RHC 58-14.

  75. 75.

    See Coase to Whitaker, October 16, 1967, RHC 105-5, as well as Coase (1978, 208). Like Marshall, Coase believed that biology had the potential to offer greater insights for grounding the study of human behavior. That Coase saw this in Marshall seems clear, as one of the passages he copied from Mary Marshall’s notes includes her statement that, “A[lfred] said that 1000 years hence Economics would be entirely different from the science it is today and would probably be based on Biology.” “Notes of Mary Marshall,” entry of 7.1.24, RHC 104-6. On Coase’s own views, including the links to Marshall, see Wang (2016, 280–81). Interestingly, Becker, too, suggested that biology had great potential for informing the economic theory of human behavior. See Becker to Coase, August 25, 1976, RHC 18-1. All that said, one can see commonalities in the discussions of altruism found in Marshall and Becker. See Medema (2015).

  76. 76.

    Indeed, Coase’s delineation of the boundaries of economics has much in common with Pareto’s. That the latter’s influence on LSE thinking was not insubstantial may have something to do with this. Contrast Pareto (1906) and Pareto (1916).

  77. 77.

    Socialist economists, such as Oskar Lange (1936, 1937) and Abba Lerner (1944), were prominent among those developing general equilibrium theory and associated approaches to welfare economics, for example.

  78. 78.

    For the uninitiated, the negotiation result that we now know as the “Coase theorem” was aimed at showing that private action works as well as government in such a world. The real world of positive transaction or coordination costs, Coase emphasized, leads to imperfect markets and imperfect government, necessitating an assessment of the relative efficiencies of the various alternatives for dealing with (in this case) external effects.

  79. 79.

    Coase’s only published references to Marshall prior to 1961 are passing ones in an early paper on duopoly (1935, 139n.4) and “The Nature of the Firm” (1937, 386–87, 388).

  80. 80.

    It turns out that this anonymous corresponded was, in reality, the Post Office Solicitor, a fact that Coase believes Marshall had sniffed out.

  81. 81.

    The letters were written by Marshall on March 23 and March 31, 1891 and were published on March 24 and April 6, respectively. They are reprinted as letters 351 and 353 in Whitaker (1996, vol. 2, 19–21, 22–25). Coase (1961, 50) erroneously dates the first of Marshall’s letters to 1890. References given here are to Coase’s 1961 quotations from the letters.

  82. 82.

    See Marshall fragment in Pigou (1925, 359).

  83. 83.

    It may be Marshall’s antipathy toward what he saw as the socialistic flavor of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, combined with Marshall’s use of rich institutional detail in making his case against George, that led Coase to publish Marshall’s lectures on George’s book in the Journal of Law and Economics (Marshall 1969).

  84. 84.

    Marshall’s position in Industry and Trade, written nearly three decades later, was perhaps a bit less nuanced, speaking much more favorably of a postal monopoly. See Marshall (1919, 428). Given Coase’s familiarity with Marshall’s writings and the fact that he cut his teeth on Marshall’s Industry and Trade as a student (and cites another part of that book in his article on the postal monopoly), it is noteworthy that Coase made no mention of this modification in Marshall’s views.

  85. 85.

    Coase’s interest in the effects of the postal monopoly was not confined to Britain. George Priest’s (1975) study of the U.S. postal monopoly was effectively commissioned by Coase and, perhaps coincidentally, was published by Coase in the Journal of Law and Economics as the article immediately following Coase’s article on Marshall’s method.

  86. 86.

    See the essays reprinted in Coase’s Essays on Economics and Economists (1994).

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Medema, S.G. (2021). Between LSE and Cambridge: Accounting for Ronald Coase’s Fascination with Alfred Marshall. In: Caldari, K., Dardi, M., Medema, S.G. (eds) Marshall and the Marshallian Heritage. Palgrave Studies in the History of Economic Thought. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-53032-7_10

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