The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order
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.
Harvard University Press
“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… The author mounts an incisive attack on the association of markets with freedom and government with repression… The result is a stimulating challenge to conventional wisdom.”
“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.”
—David Cole, Georgetown University
“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.”
—Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
“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.”
—Robert W. Gordon, Yale University
“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.”
—Alice Ristroph, Seton Hall University
“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.”
—Lester Thurow, author of Head to Head, The Future of Capitalism, and The Zero-Sum Society
“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!”
—Cornel West, Princeton University
“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.”
—Loïc Wacquant, author of Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity
Economic History | Economics | Economic Theory | Social and Behavioral Sciences
Harcourt, Bernard E., "The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order" (2011). Books. 110.