SIOE 2020 Opening Remarks: Memories of Oliver Williamson

By Tore Ellingsen*

The first time I met Oliver Williamson was in 1986, when he was a guest of honor at the 50th anniversary of Norwegian School of Economics. At the time I was a first-year PhD student. He encouraged me to take a governance approach to a financial contracting problem I was thinking about. It was incredibly inspiring that he would pay attention to someone so junior and from such a humble place.

Twenty-three years later, December 10, 2009, Ollie received the Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel, shared with Elinor Ostrom, for their separate but complementary work on economic governance. They each received the prize from the hands of Carl Gustaf, King of Sweden, in front of a packed concert hall here in Stockholm. It was my privilege to give the presentation speech.

Today’s memorial represents another crossing of our paths. The occasion is less happy than the other two. But as an organization, our role is not to mourn the dead. It is to ensure that their legacies live on.

The best way to promote scientists’ legacies is not by celebrating them, but by challenging them. In 1932, Ronald Coase thought that he had already dismissed the idea that the boundaries of firms were shaped by hold-up problems. But that didn’t prevent Ollie from building some of his central contributions on the hold-up foundation fifty years later. In the process, he renewed the profession’s interest in Coase’s earlier work. If we want to honor Ollie, we must question him in turn. And, like him, we must keep an open mind toward the young and inexperienced scholars, so that they may one day challenge us.


*As SIOE-President, Tore Ellingsen gave these opening remarks at the recent (streamed) annual conference.