Williamson and Property Rights

By Dean Lueck*

Oliver Williamson had an important, but indirect and complementary effect on the analysis of property rights. At SIOE, the organization Williamson co-founded and nurtured for more than two decades, property rights scholars have thrived. Collectively these scholars have examined the details of property rights, their variation over time and place and the role of the state in their determination and enforcement. Williamson’s work on contracts was related to the "property rights approach" to the firm developed by Oliver Hart, yet he gave limited attention to issues of ownership of assets and the institutions and organizations that define and govern ownership.

My view is that while Williamson did not explicitly explore these topics much of his work was complementary and his comparative governance approach is implicit in this work and more could be done. His focus on incomplete contracts and the problems that arise and the solutions that emerge parallel the focus of Yoram Barzel, Henry Smith and others on imperfect property rights to complex assets. His study of the institutions of governance that spanned contracts, firms, markets, and bureaucracy has applications for the institutions of property rights, from legal doctrine and courts, to registries and land surveying. Williamson’s TCE (transaction cost economic) approach is a leaner view of transaction costs compared to these other property rights scholars who have recognized the linkage between transaction costs and property rights. Williamson seemed mostly informed by Coase (1937) on the firm and less by on Coase (1960) on property rights. Williamson’s view of transaction costs as the costs of defining and enforcing contracts did not allow the examination of such issues as original ownership, the structure of law or the role of the state in enforcement. At the same time, property rights scholars have not taken full advantage of Williamson’s comparative institutions approach to examine the boundaries and discreteness of property regimes.

My personal interaction with Oliver Williamson was limited but gratifying and important. Early in my career he guided a couple JLEO papers of mine (with Doug Allen) on contracting in modern agriculture. Much later when my worked turned more to property rights I had the privilege of giving a seminar on land demarcation (work with Gary Libecap) at Berkeley in what was locally known as the “Olly Workshop.” As usual he was gracious, attentive, and asked the important questions.


*Dean Lueck is Professor of Economics and Director of the Program on Natural Resource Governance at the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. He is a past member of the SIOE Board of Directors.