It is generally agreed that this article has had an immense influence on legal scholarship, but this was no part of my intention. For me, "The Problem of Social Cost" was an essay in economics. It was aimed at economists. What I wanted to do was to improve our analysis of the working of the economic system. Law came into article because, in a regime of positive transaction costs, the character of the law becomes one of the main factors determining the performance of the economy. If transaction costs were zero (as is assumed in standard economic theory) we can imagine people contracting around the law whenever the value of production would be increased by a change in the legal position. But in a regime of positive transaction costs, such contracting would not occur whenever transaction costs were greater than the gain that such a redistribution of rights would bring. As a consequence the rights which individuals possess will commonly be those established by the law, which in these circumstances can be said to control the economy. As I have said, in "The Problem of Social Cost" I had no intention of making a contribution to legal scholarship. I referred to legal cases because they afforded examples of real situations as against the imaginary ones normally used by economists in their analysis. It was undoubtedly an economist who invented the widget. But in "The Problem of Social Cost" I did something else. I pointed out that the judges in their opinions often seemed to show a better understanding of the economic problem than did many economists even though their views were not always expressed in a very explicit fashion. I did this not to praise the judges but to shame economists.
Ronald Harry Coase was born in Willesden, a suburb of London, on 29 December 1910. His father, Henry Joseph Coase (1884–1973) was a telegraphist for the post office, as was his mother, Rosalie Elizabeth Coase (née Giles; 1882–1972), before marriage. As a child, Coase had a weakness in his legs, for which he was required to wear leg-irons. Due to this Problem, he attended the school for physical defectives. At the age of 12, he was able to enter the Kilburn Grammar School on scholarship. At Kilburn, Coase completed the first year of his BComm degree and then passed on to the University of London. Coase married Marion Ruth Hartung of Chicago, Illinois in Willesden, England, 7 August 1937.
Coase attended the London School of Economics, where he received a bachelor of commerce degree in 1932. During his undergraduate studies, Coase received the Sir Ernest Cassel Travelling Scholarship, awarded by the University of London. He used this to visit the University of Chicago in 1931–1932 and studied with Frank Knight and Jacob Viner. Coase’s colleagues would later admit that they did not remember this first visit. Between 1932–34, Coase was an assistant lecturer at the Dundee School of Economics and Commerce, which later became part of the University of Dundee. Subsequently, Coase was an assistant lecturer in commerce at the University of Liverpool between 1934–1935 before returning to London School of Economics as a member of staff until 1951. He then started to work at the University at Buffalo and retained his British citizenship after moving to the United States in the 1950s. In 1958, he moved to the University of Virginia. Coase settled at the University of Chicago in 1964 and became the Editor of the Journal of Law and Economics. He was also for a time a trustee of the Philadelphia Society. He received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991.
In "The Nature of the Firm" (1937) – a brief but highly influential essay – Coase attempts to explain why the economy features a number of Business firms instead of consisting exclusively of a multitude of independent, self-employed people who contract with one another. Given that "production could be carried on without any organization [that is, firms] at all", Coase asks, why and under what conditions should we expect firms to emerge?
Upon publishing his article The Federal Communications Commission in 1959, Coase received negative feedback from the faculty at the University of Chicago over his conclusions and apparent conflicts with A. C. Pigou. According to Coase, "What I said was thought to run counter to Pigou’s analysis by a number of economists at the University of Chicago and was therefore, according to them, wrong. At a meeting in Chicago I was able to convince these economists that I was right and Pigou’s analysis faulty." Coase had presented his paper in 1960 during a seminar in Chicago, to twenty senior Economist including George Stigler and Milton Friedman. He gradually won over the usually skeptic audience, in what has later been considered a “paradigm-shifting moment” in the genesis of Chicago Law and Economics. Coase would join the Chicago faculty four years later.
Published in the Journal of Law and Economics in 1960, while Coase was a member of the Economics department at the University of Virginia, "The Problem of Social Cost" provided the key insight that it is unclear where the blame for externalities lies. The Example he gave was of a rancher whose cattle stray onto the cropland of his neighbour. If the rancher is made to restrict his cattle, he is harmed just as the farmer is if the cattle remain unrestrained.
The University of Chicago Law School carries on the legacy of Ronald Coase through the mission of the Coase-Sandor Institute for Law and Economics. Each year, the University of Chicago Law School hosts the Coase Lecture, which was delivered in 2003 by Ronald Coase himself.
Nearing his 100th birthday, Coase was working on a book concerning the rise of the economies of China and Vietnam. In an interview, Coase explained the mission of the Coase China Society and his vision of economics and the part to be played by Chinese economists. Coase was honoured and received an honorary doctorate from the University at Buffalo Department of Economics in May 2012.
Coase was research advisor to the Ronald Coase Institute, an organisation that promotes research on institutions and organizations – the laws, rules, customs, and norms – that govern real economic systems, with particular support for young scholars from developing and transitional countries.
Guido Calabresi wrote that Coase’s focus on transaction costs in The Nature of the Firm was the result of his socialist beliefs. Reflecting on this, Coase wrote, "It is very difficult to know where one’s ideas come from but for all I know he may well be right." Coase continued: