Oliver E. Williamson’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 2009
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2009
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen
My remarks in connection with the 2009 award to Professor Ostrom and myself of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel are in three parts.
First, Professor Ostrom and I deeply appreciate the honor that the Nobel Committee has conferred upon us for our research.
Second, we, like other recipients, have been overwhelmed by the joy that this award has brought to others – as revealed by the outpouring of goodwill from family, friends, former and present students, teachers, colleagues, and others that this announcement unleashed. The sincerity has been unimaginable. We have been moved.
Third, I want to speak about the science of organization that is in progress and of which we have been privileged to be a part. Let me remind you that Thomas Carlyle, in and oft repeated remark, described economists as “respectable professors of the dismal science” in 1850 – and we still suffer from this misconception today.
I submit that a more accurate way to put it is that economists and others from the contiguous social sciences who both draw on and inform economics, are “hard-headed but not mean-spirited.”
Being hard-headed means that we aspire to tell it like it is – be it good news or bad. Although we take no joy in the downside, it is our duty candidly to confront all circumstances whatsoever. Our abiding concern is with improving the condition of mankind. Myopia, denial, and obfuscation are the enemy.
Only as we admit to and, of even greater importance, come to understand the problems that confront us – be they current or impending, obvious or obscure, real or imagined – by identifying and explicating the mechanisms that are responsible for these problems, can we expect to make informed decisions. Since, moreover, things that we do not understand at the outset sometimes have redeeming purposes, such efforts to get at the essence will often uncover real or latent benefits. Altogether, our capacity to work in the service of mankind increases as complex contract and economic and political organization become more susceptible to analysis.
The concept of governance is a key unifying concept for undertaking this project, where governance is the means by which to infuse order, thereby to mitigate conflict, and realize mutual gains – broadly in the spirit of the insights of John R. Commons in the early 1930s. Only, however, as contractual approaches to the study of economic organization have taken shape in recent decades has it become possible to breathe operational content into this fundamental concept of governance. We have in the process moved beyond the old ideological divide of markets or hierarchies to treat markets and hierarchies and other modes of governance in a unified way, with the result that we can now make more informed choices among them. I know that I speak for Professor Ostrom and myself, as well as students and colleagues who have taken this road less travelled, in saying that this has been an endlessly interesting and challenging and socially beneficial project – and the future holds more of the same.