Ronald Coase and the Battle of Breastfeeding



People pay to make them bigger and smaller and there is an entire store in the mall dedicated to them. Every year, thousands of people walk to cure them of cancer. If there are 7 billion people in the world, this means about 3.5 billion people have them. What am I talking about?

Today, I’m talking about boobs.

For something so common, it seems like this part of the body generates a lot of controversy. If you don’t believe me, ask people to talk about Super Bowl halftime shows. I’d bet within five minutes someone mentions “Nipplegate,” referring to 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in which Janet Jackson (with an assist from recording artist Justin Timberlake) had her nipple exposed for less than a second on live TV. Pandemonium ensued.

What came to be known as the world’s most famous “wardrobe malfunction” isn’t the only time an exposed breast has caused problems. It seems as though at least once a week I come across a story online or on television regarding breastfeeding in public. Every time the story is the same, a woman is asked to cover up while feeding an infant in public, takes to the internet to share her grievance, and comment thread chaos ensues (see here, here, and here for examples).

In case you haven’t seen or taken part in one of these conversations, allow me to summarize both sides of the argument. On the one hand, individuals who favor of breastfeeding openly in public state things like,

“I eat in public, why shouldn’t my child?”

“It’s natural.”

“This is what breasts are for—it’s not sexual in any way.”

On the other hand, people who are uncomfortable with the practice state that,

“Lots of things are natural. Sex, nudity, and urinating are all natural and yet people don’t do them in public.”

“Breasts have been sexualized, so having your breast out in public is sexual.”

“Mother-child bonding doesn’t need to include everyone in the public space.”

So who should win this argument? Should breastfeeding moms cover up in public, or should breastfeeding women be allowed to expose their breasts in spaces both public and private?

Although this problem seems unique, it’s actually just one example of what economics call a “negative externality.” When a mother breastfeeds she incurs certain costs, like the time and effort it takes to feed her baby. When she does this in public however, a negative externality is sometimes created—that is, some people see her breast(s) who don’t want to.

It seems like the solution to this problem should be simple. Many readers of this blog are likely familiar with the work of Ronald Coase. According to Coase, negative externalities (like those created by breastfeeding) can be eliminated as long as two conditions hold. First, property rights must be well-defined. Second, transaction costs have to be zero. (You can see a nice video explaining the Coase Theorem here.)

People tend to misunderstand Coase a lot. He was pointing out that transaction costs are really important and that, in many cases, these costs prevent externalities from being fully internalized.

But I don’t think transaction costs are the problem when it comes to breastfeeding in public. Having a woman covering up, even if just with a small blanket or other covering, isn’t that high cost. (You could make the argument that this is emotionally costly, but I think that has little tractability.)

If the problem is not with transaction costs, it follows the problem must be with how the property rights are being defined. Now this may seem like a silly premise. Of course a woman owns her breasts. It seems to me it’s not the breasts that are the problem per se, but their exposure. In that case, it’s critically important to figure who owns this “exposure right.” Is it the right of the woman to be able to expose her breast in any sort of space? Or is it the right of a restaurant owner or other proprietor to determine the appropriate amount of exposure in the space they own?

Given how often this issue seems to crop up on my social media, it’s one I’ve thought about at some length, but I struggle to come up with a clean answer. It seems infeasible to me that a woman’s “exposure right” should trump the private property rights of a shop owner. If a shop can say, “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” I fail to see how adding breasts is any different, other than the fact they might be feeding a baby. Yet we don’t see people arguing over their right to walk around barefoot in a restaurant.

Perhaps someone can lead me to the answer I’ve been looking for. One thing is for sure, I bet when Dr. Coase developed his theorem, he probably didn’t think it would ever be applied to this!

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