With all economists say about markets in which products are bought and sold, you might want to stop and think about all your interactions that are outside of such traditionally conceived markets. The two 2009 Nobel Prize winners in Economics Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson made their careers exploring the boundaries of markets. But do their insights have any bearing on the economics of religion?
Elinor Ostrom is best known for her work on common property resources. Think of the overfishing of lakes or overgrazing of pastures. Her work shows that, although people usually cannot enforce the most efficient consumption of common resources, they often are able to coordinate efforts to do better than what simple theory predicts they would do. Some of her insights into how people work within communities to detect and punish free-riders are directly relevant to our study of how religious groups coordinate their own actions. Groups devise internal ways to enforce good behavior, and they are very creative in doing so. We will talk about religious groups in this way, i.e., as institutions that have developed ingenious ways of solving collective action problems.
Oliver Williamson's work focuses on the boundaries of the firm. His ideas confront why it is that firms even exist, why some exchanges occur at prices, and why some exchanges occur within hierarchies, like boss-to-underling. Firms often must decide which decisions to make via the price mechanism and which to make through hierarchies, and his work argues that the cost of engaging in transactions--the so-called transactions cost--determines, in part, which method is used. Churches face similar problems in deciding how best to structure their congregational activities, which goods to produce themselves, and which to have group members get from outside markets, and so on.
Though I see connections between the Nobel winners' work and the economics of religion, I know of no systematic attempt to tie their work more directly to religion. Maybe the announcement of their prize will help spark such work. I would love to see it.