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Judges, wealth and morals : Ronald Coase on the judge in economics

Rafaël Lazega
p. 67-92


In this article, I assess Ronald Coase’s preference for the institution of the judge in the light of his methodology and his concern for morals. Coase prefers judges because their approach is close to his own: empirical, qualitative, case-specific, and comparative, rather than abstract. Coase’s interest in morals, his taking into account of morals in his case studies, and his methodological similarity with judges suggest that judicial choices should also, for him, be based on morals. These morals seem to emanate from common sense, the set of common values shared within a society. The judge is the public agent who can most aptly make use of common sense to apply the moral principle of justice due to his proximity and his listening to the parties. Coase raises the question of how some notions of general welfare such as economic wealth could enter into consideration in the moral concept of justice.

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1. Morals as a form of wealth
2. Coase’s methodology: highlighting qualities and moral issues
3. Value judgement and common sense
4. Coase and the Judge

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Throughout his career, Ronald Coase has encouraged economists to study the impact of institutions and law on the functioning of the economic system. The point has been raised that he preferred one kind of public intervention, through the common law, rather than statutory and especially regulatory law (e.g. Simpson, 1996). The common law would be more apt to make judges favor efficiency because of its ex post, adversarial and flexible nature (Bertrand, 2015b). Whether Coase’s preference was justified has been the object of various discussions (White, 1987; Aranson, 1992; Pasour, 1996).

Those discussions have elaborated on the idea that Coase’s ultimate concerns were the usual economic concepts of cost, efficiency, information and calculation. Coase has been perceived to argue that judges should not provide justice but maximize wealth (Block, 2003). Yet, Coase has expressed much discontent with the practice of “modern economists” who, he felt, misunderstood his argument bec...

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Electronic reference

Rafaël Lazega, « Judges, wealth and morals : Ronald Coase on the judge in economics », Revue européenne des sciences sociales [Online], 58-1 | 2020, Online since 02 January 2024, connection on 24 September 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Rafaël Lazega

Université de Neuchâtel

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© Librairie Droz

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