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Confining the Coase Theorem: Contracting, Ownership, and Free-riding

by Elena Paltseva (with Tore Ellingsen), published in The Review of Economic Studies

If individuals own the right to take any action that they please, and are free to contract about behaviour, will outcomes be efficient in all situations? That is, does the Coase theorem hold? We study this classic question through the lens of a non-cooperative model of contract negotiations, considering both compulsory and voluntary participation in negotiations. In either case, we find that all consistent equilibria of the contracting game are efficient in the case of two players. But if participation is voluntary, and there are more than two players, there are situations in which all consistent equilibria are inefficient. Specifically, the provision of public goods tends to be inefficiently low due to strategic abstention from contracting. Free-riding on others' agreements can be avoided if individuals do not own all their actions. When actions involve the use of assets, efficient action ownership may correspond to collective rather than individual asset ownership.

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