Coase and dorm-room noises

By Eric Crampton 31/08/2013

The University of Auckland’s halls of residence warn that they might ban students from copulatory activites from 10 pm to 6 am, because of the costs their noise imposes on students in neighbouring rooms.

Ronald Coase reminds us of the reciprocal nature of externalities. Without the ban, active students impose costs on their neighbours. But by implementing the ban, the neighbours impose costs on those who would wish to undertake such activities. Which is best?

And so we have a situation identical to that which obtained in the Economics Department here at Canterbury when we moved to open-plan offices post-quake. No, we don’t do that in the offices, despite the apparent productivity benefits. Rather, some of us type loudly and like talking with colleagues while others of us cannot abide noise while working. The Department is split over two buildings. In my building, we fence out the noise by adopting a “wear headphones” norm. This is fortunate both because I do take a few media calls from time to time, and because the Department’s administrator is located in our building, and because I have the world’s best keyboard. In the other building, they’ve adopted a shushing norm. I strongly prefer the norm in our building, but nothing stops people from choosing one building or the other as suits their fancy.

When I was an undergraduate in the University of Manitoba’s University College dorms, I sadly was not the source of, well, any external noise cost. But rather than wish to shush others or seek to ban their fun out of envy or resentment, I played Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos on infinite repeat, loudly, all night, every night. The Concertos still put me to sleep. But I was a Coasean, even though Manitoba’s Economics Department didn’t much emphasize Coasean approaches: I recognized that the costs to me of averting the costs of the noise were much lower than the costs I could possibly impose on everyone else from banning noisemaking.

Further, Bach was a general-purpose solution: it worked against sex noises, but also against the noise of drunken revelers coming home late from the campus bar. Ban all specific noises as much as you like, but there’ll still be noise that happens. It’s simply more efficient to encourage people who don’t like distracting noises to fence it out with Bach.

I guess the point of all of this is that Auckland students should come to Canterbury instead.