Lloyd Cohen, ‘Becker, Coase, Tullock and Manne: A Personal Tribute’

I recall a scene in television dramatization of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in which the James Watson character is showing Rosalind Franklin the tinker toy model that he and Francis Crick have constructed. As he tries to explain it to her, she shushes him and says something to the effect that ‘It is so beautiful and simple it must be true’. I love that scene: if it did not happen that way in real life it ought to have!

Why do I begin this short essay honoring four of the giants of law and economics who have recently passed with a reference to an entirely foreign intellectual discipline? Because I believe that their work partakes in the same beautiful fundamental quality. All that the mind appears capable of understanding is the simple. The trick of course it to discern that simple clear melody concealed by the cacophony of noise that envelops it. This characteristic of mind to seek out and embrace the simple unitary explanation appears to be fortuitously aligned with the rules of the universe. That is, it seems that there is much that can be understood about the natural and social world by simple elegant beautiful insights.

The perverse effect of this is that once the simple melody is heard it often cannot be unheard and may — not very gradually — come to seem obvious and trivial. So I take keyboard in hand to briefly note for the reader the core simple fundamental melodies that these recently departed gentlemen have revealed to us, revelations that given the stickiness of dogma were often not appreciated immediately. For those readers who would like a more thorough discussion of the scholarly impact of these (and other) giants of the field I commend to them the series of essays that Joshua Wright and I edited on the subject. I also note in passing that no slight is intended to other major figures who passed not long ago and are worthy of like honor. In addition I am happy to report that there are still law & economics giants who sleep on the green side of the grass: Demsetz, Epstein, Posner, Landes, Williamson, and Calabrese among others.

So in this brief essay I shall set myself the task of reciting the simple core insight that each has supplied to the intellectual world, the insight that on reflection seems obvious — and it is, once a genius points it out.

Cohen, Lloyd R, Becker, Coase, Tullock and Manne: A Personal Tribute (August 24, 2015). Review of Law and Economics, forthcoming; George Mason Legal Studies Research Paper No LS 15-04; George Mason Law and Economics Research Paper No 15-22.

First posted 2015-08-27 06:13:16

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