Paul Greenberg

Reality is repeating scholarship again. It does so with some regularity. A clash between the feds and a Nevada rancher captured the nation's attention the other day -- and brought to mind how prophetic scholars can be.

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Think of Max Weber, the German sociologist and thinker (yes, the two can go together) back in the 19th and early 20th century who foresaw the defining, interacting aspects of dawning modernity even before they had fully taken shape. From an omnipresent bureaucracy to the disenchantment with religion to the Holocaust, which were all of a piece.

Think of the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who summed up the essence of modern capitalism in just a couple of words, creative destruction. Or how Fritz Schumacher crystallized the whole of anti-trust philosophy with what has become a slogan, small is beautiful.

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Just think of Ronald Coase -- an economist who was just minding his own theories at the University of Virginia when his thoughts proved so (a) unconventional, (b) politically incorrect and (c) sound that he had to take refuge, as many a great scholar has done before, at the University of Chicago, home of that bevy of independent thinkers (Milton Friedman et al.) who became known as, appropriately enough, the Chicago School of economists.

Is there a single phrase that captures the spirit of Ronald Coase's many and original contributions to economics and, beyond that, to society in general? How about the Beauty of Simplicity?

Back in 1960, Ronald Coase wrote an essay about "The Problem of Social Cost" that may be the most cited law-review article in history. It's an incisive look at how inefficient the fractious jumble of government regulation, taxation, subsidization and litigation can be -- certainly when compared to settling disputes by amicable negotiation between competing interests.

Here is the no longer so hypothetical case Dr. Coase used to demonstrate the problem: The farmer whose land is being damaged by emissions from passing trains. His solution: not a penalty or fine or still another lawsuit or 10,000-word bill in Congress, but a businesslike arrangement that would benefit all concerned. A win-win deal, to use the current term of art. Let the farmer agree not to cultivate that vulnerable part of his land in return for a payment from the railroad to cover whatever profit he would forgo by letting it lie fallow.

Talk about reducing costs -- for the farmer, the railroad, and the tax-paying public. Not to mention promoting a peaceable, efficient society. Ronald Coase's hypothetical solution to the problem was designed to benefit all. Well, maybe all but the lawyers.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.