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The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order

Overview

It is widely believed today that the free market is the best mechanism ever invented to efficiently allocate resources in society. Just as fundamental as faith in the free market is the belief that government has a legitimate and competent role in policing and the punishment arena. This curious incendiary combination of free market efficiency and the Big Brother state has become seemingly obvious, but it hinges on the illusion of a supposedly natural order in the economic realm. The Illusion of Free Markets ...

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Overview

It is widely believed today that the free market is the best mechanism ever invented to efficiently allocate resources in society. Just as fundamental as faith in the free market is the belief that government has a legitimate and competent role in policing and the punishment arena. This curious incendiary combination of free market efficiency and the Big Brother state has become seemingly obvious, but it hinges on the illusion of a supposedly natural order in the economic realm. The Illusion of Free Markets argues that our faith in “free markets” has severely distorted American politics and punishment practices.

Bernard Harcourt traces the birth of the idea of natural order to eighteenth-century economic thought and reveals its gradual evolution through the Chicago School of economics and ultimately into today’s myth of the free market. The modern category of “liberty” emerged in reaction to an earlier, integrated vision of punishment and public economy, known in the eighteenth century as “police.” This development shaped the dominant belief today that competitive markets are inherently efficient and should be sharply demarcated from a government-run penal sphere.

This modern vision rests on a simple but devastating illusion. Superimposing the political categories of “freedom” or “discipline” on forms of market organization has the unfortunate effect of obscuring rather than enlightening. It obscures by making both the free market and the prison system seem natural and necessary. In the process, it facilitated the birth of the penitentiary system in the nineteenth century and its ultimate culmination into mass incarceration today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Not only is the "free" market of laissez-faire doctrine not free, it underpins the extravagant unfreedom of our metastasized penal system, argues this provocative intellectual history. Law professor and political scientist Harcourt advances two awkwardly intersecting arguments. The first, supported by his revealing comparison of police regulations governing 18th-century Paris's grain market with the rules of today's Chicago Board of Trade, asserts that even supposedly free markets are saturated with arbitrary and biased regulation. The second, based on insightful readings of free market ideologues from 18th-century Physiocrats to latter-day "law and economics" theorists like Richard Posner, argues that the influential concept of the marketplace as a "natural order" that should remain outside government control implies its obverse: a "neoliberal penality" of harsh state-supervised punishment for criminals who defy the market's ethos. (America, with its market-worshipping politics and swollen prisons, is his main exhibit.) The author mounts an incisive attack on the association of markets with freedom and government with repression, but his linkage of free market theory with the lockdown state is tenuous. The result is a stimulating challenge to conventional wisdom--which sometimes overreaches. (Jan.)
Best-Selling Author Malcolm Gladwell
Bernard Harcourt has never had an uninteresting thought, or made an argument that does not provoke or engage or delight or enlighten—or do all of those things simultaneously.
Robert W. Gordon
Bernard Harcourt has two urgent lessons to teach. The first is that there are no "free" markets, only markets regulated in different ways and by different means. The second is that libertarian devotion to free markets tends to march in step with authoritarian devotion to coercion, the punitive carceral state. This brilliant book, beautifully written and illustrated with a wealth of fascinating detail -- is a subtle and penetrating study of the origins and development of some of our principal modern illusions.
Cornel West
Bernard Harcourt's magisterial book makes a strong and persuasive case for the tight connection of the invisible hand of neoliberal 'free' markets and the iron fist of carceral policies. His erudite blend of history, political thought and economic theory lays bare the dark side of neoliberal penality. We ignore his powerful democratic voice and view at our own peril!
Loïc Wacquant
In this intrepid book, Harcourt excavates the historical genealogy of the twin myths of the 'free market' and the 'diligent police' to illumine the current American predicament of steep social inequality and gargantuan prisons. From Quesnay to Bentham to Ronald Coase and Gary Becker, he reveals that the current idolatry of the market finds its roots in successive declinations of the eighteenth-century notion of 'natural order,' which fosters both minimal government in economic matters and maximal government in law and order. By retracing how market naturalism and penal despotism come to form the two sides of the same conception of the state, The Illusions of Free Markets offers a bracing critique of neoliberal reason that will stimulate wide debate and heated controversy.
David Cole
An ambitious and sophisticated exploration of the ideological roots of what might well be the central paradox of modern American culture -- that we insist that we are the leaders of the 'free world' while incarcerating more people per capita than any other country on the planet.
Lester Thurow
The Illusion of Free Markets explores the concept of natural order that underlies so much of free market economic thought—particularly the Chicago School. Bernard Harcourt's insights into how our economic rhetoric influences the United States' acceptance of incarceration are particularly rich. This book is a must read for anyone who wants to think seriously about those two natural antagonists: markets and democracy.
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell
Bernard Harcourt has never had an uninteresting thought, or made an argument that does not provoke or engage or delight or enlighten—or do all of those things simultaneously.
Alice Ristroph
The Illusion of Free Markets is a beautifully written and well-researched book that addresses two subjects of great contemporary significance: the conceptualization of market exchange as "free" and "natural," and the expansion of the American penal system. The book argues that the way we think about markets has shaped—indeed, distorted—the way we think about criminal justice, and it is time to rethink both. Harcourt's claims will spur lively and much needed debate.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674057265
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Bernard Harcourt is Julius Kreeger Professor of Law ?and Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
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Table of Contents

The Paris Marais and the Chicago Board of Trade 1

1 Beccaria on Crime and Punishment 53

2 Policing the Public Economy 63

3 The Birth of Natural Order 78

4 The Rise of Legal Despotism 92

5 Bentham's Strange Alchemy 103

6 The Chicago School 121

7 The Myth of Discipline 151

8 The Illusion of Freedom 176

9 The Penitentiary System and Mass Incarceration 191

10 Private Prisons, Drugs, and the Welfare State 221

A Prolegomenon 240

Notes 245

Bibliography 285

Acknowledgments 313

Index 315

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