Discovering transaction cost economics (TCE)

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m in the process of discovering transaction cost economics (TCE), the branch of economics devoted to the study of transaction costs, which include bargaining and search costs. Oliver Williamson, who is a professor at UC Berkeley, won the Nobel Prize for his work on TCE in 2009. I’m starting with the Williamson, 2008 article (in the References) which seems like a late-stage overview of what is a large body of work.

Personally, this is yet another time when I’ve discovered that the answers or proper theoretical language for understanding something I am struggling with has simply been Somewhere Else all alone. Delight and frustration are pretty much evening each other out at this point.

Why is TCE so critical (to me)?

  • I think the real story about how the Internet and AI have changed things, which is the topic constantly reiterated in so many policy and HCI studies about platforms, is that they reduced search costs. However, it’s hard to make the case for that without a respectable theorization of search costs and how they matter to the economy. This, I think, what transaction cost economics are about.
  • You may recall I wrote my doctoral dissertation about “data economics” on the presumption (which was, truly, presumptuous) that a proper treatment of the role of data in the economy had not yet been done. This was due mainly to the deficiencies of the discussion of information in neoclassical economic theory. But perhaps I was a fool, because it may be that this missing-link work on information economics has been in transaction cost economics all along! Interestingly, Pat Bajari, who is Chief Economist at Amazon, has done some TCE work, suggesting that like Hal Varian’s economics, this is stuff that actually works in a business context, which is more or less the epistemic standard you want economics to meet. (I would argue that economics should be seen, foremost, as a discipline of social engineering.)
  • A whole other line of research I’ve worked on over the years has been trying to understand the software supply chain, especially with respect to open source software (Benthall 2016; Benthall, 2017). That’s a tricky topic because the idea of “supply” and “chain” in that domain are both highly metaphorical and essentially inaccurate. Yet there are clearly profound questions about the relationships between sociotechnical organizations, their internal and external complexity, and so on to be found there, along with (and this is really what’s exciting about it) ample empirical basis to support arguments about it, just by the nature of it. Well, it turns out that the paradigmatic case for transaction cost economics is vertical integration, or the “make-or-buy” decision wherein a firm decides to (A) purchase it from an open market, (D) produce something in-house, or (C) (and this is the case that transaction cost economics really tries to develop) engage with the supplier in a contract which creates an ongoing and secure relationship between them. Labor contracts are all, for reasons that I may go into later, of this (C) kind.

So, here comes TCE, with its firm roots in organization theory, Hayekian theories of the market, Coase’s and other theories of the firm, and firm emphasis on the supply chain relation between sociotechnical organizations. And I HAVEN’T STUDIED IT. There is even solid work on its relation to privacy done by Whittington and Hoofnagle (2011; 2013). How did I not know about this? Again, if I were not so delighted, I would be livid.

Please expect a long series of posts as I read through the literature on TCE and try to apply it to various cases of interest.


Benthall, S. (2017) Assessing Software Supply Chain Risk Using Public Data. IEEE STC 2017 Software Technology Conference.

Benthall, S., Pinney, T., Herz, J., Plummer, K. (2016) An Ecological Approach to Software Supply Chain Risk Management. Proceedings of the 15th Python in Science Conference. p. 136-142. Ed. Sebastian Benthall and Scott Rostrup.

Hoofnagle, Chris Jay, and Jan Whittington. “Free: accounting for the costs of the internet’s most popular price.” UCLA L. Rev. 61 (2013): 606.

Whittington, Jan, and Chris Jay Hoofnagle. “Unpacking Privacy’s Price.” NCL Rev. 90 (2011): 1327.

Williamson, Oliver E. “Transaction cost economics.” Handbook of new institutional economics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2008. 41-65.