The Coase Theorem is false: contracts depend on tort law
David Friedman justifies his neoclassical version of anarcho-capitalism by the Coase Theorem, which translated into legal terms is usually understood as the following: in the absence of transaction costs, and regardless of the prior allocation of legal rights, any tort ("externality" in economic terms) can be resolved by voluntary bargaining to form a contract, resulting in an economically efficient outcome.
Here are some places where Friedman relies on the Coase Theorem:
Consider two [legal protection] firms with somewhat different customer bases, bargaining over what court's legal system to agree on. Firm A prefers one legal system, say one that permits capital punishment for murder. Firm B prefers a different system, one that does not permit it.
Each firm estimates the value to its customers, and from that the increase it can expect in its revenues, if it can provide them with its preferred legal system. We expect, along conventional Coaseian lines, that they will agree on the system that maximizes their combined benefit. [Source].
A still more attractive and more likely solution [to avoid war] is advance contracting between the agencies. Under this scenario, any two agencies that faced a significant probability of such clashes would agree on an arbitration agency to settle them-a private court. Implicit or explicit in their agreement would be the legal rules under which such disputes were to be settled. Under these circumstances, both law enforcement and law are private goods produced on a private market...
Readers familiar with the economic literature on efficiency may notice that my argument owes more to Coase than to Marshall. I have relied on the idea that parties will negotiate towards efficient contracts, rather than on the conventional analysis of a competitive industry....[Source]
The proof that the Coase Theorem is false is actually quite simple: the assumptions of the Theorem contradict each other. The assumption that transactions are voluntary contradicts the assumption that any prior allocation of rights is possible, including rights that allow one party to coerce another. In fact, for the Theorem to at all make sense, a very large and crucial set of prior rights allocations must be excluded -- namely any that allow any party to coerce another.
But we can't generally solve externalities problems by bargaining under this revised assumption. Externalities cannot be neatly distinguished from coercive acts, as extending one of Coase's own examples illustrates. In this example we have a railroad with a train that, passing by a farmer's wheat field, gives off sparks, which may start a fire in the field. In Coase's account, the prior allocation of rights might give the railroad the right to give off sparks, in which case the farmer must either plant his wheat far enough away from the railroad (wasting land) or buy the right to be free from sparks from the railroad. The prior allocation might instead already give the farmer the right to be completely free from sparks, in which case the railroad can either buy the right to emit sparks from the farmer or install spark-suppressors. If these are the two possible prior allocations of rights, Coase concluded that the railroad and the farmer will in the absence of transaction costs bargain to the most economically efficient outcome: if it costs less for the railroad to reduce the sparks than for the farmer to keep an unplanted firebreak, bargaining will achieve this outcome, and if the reverse, bargaining will achieve the reverse outcome, regardless of whether the farmer initially had the right to be free from sparks. So far, so good -- it seems, on the surface, that if bargaining is costless an efficient outcome will be achieved.
The problem is that these are not the only prior allocations possible. The Coase Theorem is supposed to work under any other allocation of prior rights. But it doesn't. It fails for a large and crucially important class of prior allocations: namely any that allow one party to coerce another. Here's an allocation that may or may not allow coercion, depending on your definition of coercion: a prior allocation that gives the railroad the right to emit as many sparks as it wants. In particular it includes the right of the railroad to emit sparks even if it could costlessly avoid emitting them. Here's one that is fairly clearly coercive: the right to emit sparks even if emitting them costs the railroad something extra (i.e. giving the railroad the right to purposefully emit sparks to start fires even at some extra cost to the railroad). Here's another farther down the coercive spectrum: a prior allocation that gives the railroad the right to torch the farmer's entire field with a flamethrower.
It is usually the case with coercion, as here, that it is far cheaper for the coercer to cause harm than for the victim to prevent it. To increase the threatened harm to the farmer, and thus the revenue it can obtain from extortive bargaining with the farmer, the railroad can spend extra to purposefully threaten the farmer. Here, it is likely far cheaper for the railroad to install a super spark emitter, or a flamethrower, than for the farmer to defend his fields from these sources. Indeed, since any prior allocation is possible, why stop with the farmer's fields? Another possible allocation would give the railroad a right to torch the farmer's barns, and his house, to kidnap his children -- any prior (ex ante) set of rules is supposed to be possible. In turn, if the ex ante rules allow, the farmer could threaten to tear up the railroad tracks or sabotage them to derail the trains. Under all these prior allocations of rights that allow coercion, the railroad need not just bargain to avoid the costs of supressing its externality (whether sparks or flamethrowers), nor need the farmer bargain just within this artificially voluntary spectrum of possibilities that Coase and his followers assume. Instead, if the ex ante rules so allow the railroad and farmer will bargain to avoid a negative-sum outcome: harm to the farmer with no direct benefit to the railroad, or vice versa. Since there are substantial ex post benefits to one party from extorting payments from the other, the party that can threaten the most harm at the least cost to itself has, if the ex ante rules allow, a strong economic incentive to engage in such coercion. These negative-sum games of coercion and extortion lead to highly inefficient outcomes, and they can only be avoided by carefully crafting the ex ante rules to avoid such coercion and extortion. These coercive threats that make negative-sum games possible, and that decrease the payoffs of positive-sum games, cannot be neatly distinguished in practice from innocent externalities: any act or omission of one party that harms another, i.e. any externality, doubles as a threat, whether a tiny threat or a large threat, from which an extortion premium, its size depending on the size of the threat, can be extracted.
In order to try to distinguish coercion, and the extortion it gives rise to, from an "innocent" externality that can be cured by efficient bargaining, there are ways to exclude some of these extreme possibilities from the prior allocation of rights. And indeed criminal and tort law do this: they distinguish purposeful behavior from negligent, and negligent from the mere unfortunate accident. But any such ex ante distiction contradicts the claim that the Coase Theorem applies to any prior allocation of rights. Voluntary bargaining cannnot give rise to tort and criminal law. Quite the opposite is true: at least a basic tort law is necessary to make voluntary bargaining possible. Tort law (and the associated property law which defines boundaries for the tort of trespass) is logically prior to contract law: good contracts depend on good tort and property law. Without a good tort law already in place, nobody, including the "protection firms" posited by anarcho-capitalism, can engage in the voluntary bargains that are necessary for efficient outcomes.
This is not to claim that the polar opposite of anarcho-capitalism must be true, i.e. that "the government" along the lines we are familiar with is necessary. Instead, a system of political property rights that is unbundled and decentralized is possible, and may give rise to many of the benefits (e.g. peaceful competition between jurisdictions) promised by anarcho-capitalism. But political property rights are not based on a Rothbardian assumption of voluntary agreement -- instead, in these systems the procedural law of political property rights, as well as much of substantive property rights and tort law, is prior to contract law, and their origin necessarily involves some degree of coercion. Political and legal systems have not, do not, and cannot originate solely from voluntary contract. Both traditional "social contract" justifications of the state and the Rothbardian idea that contracts can substitute for the state are false: in all cases coercion is involved, both at the origin and in the ongoing practice of legal procedure. In both cases the term "contract" is used, implying voluntary agreement, when the term "treaty", a kind of agreement often forced by coercion, would far more accurately describe the reality. The real task for libertarians and other defenders of sound economics and law is not to try to devise law from purely voluntary origins, an impossible task, but to make sure the ex ante laws make voluntary bargaining possible and discourage coercion and extortion (by any party, including political property rights holders or governments) as much as possible.