‘Free’ markets

I read recently The Illusion of Free Markets by Bernard Harcourt (date), on the recommendation of an esteemed colleague. The bulk of the book is about state discipline – Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault, the American penitentiary state. The bit that really appealed to me was the opening section on French grain markets in the 18th century, compared with Chicago commodities markets in the late 20th century.

The book opens with great detail about how intensively regulated markets were in early 18th century France, with even trivial breaches of the rules in theory liable to punishment, imposed by the police des grains. Harcourt then draws the comparison with what we think of as a model of free market capitalism, the open outcry pit of the Chicago Board of Trade (I visited once  – an amazing experience). As he convincingly establishes, there os no sharp contrast, as the modern market rules are in fact just as detailed as the 18th century version.

Why then do we contrast ‘free markets’ as today’s ideal with the over-regulated past? The book attributes the turn to the Physiocrats, and “that contested moment in the 18th century when notions of natural order were beginning to take shape.” The argument is that they shaped a sharp dichotomy between “the economy as the realm of natural order” and everything else which was thereby in the sphere of being policed by the state. “In other words, the market is efficient, and within that space there is no need for government intervention. What is criminalized and punished is behaviour outside the sphere of the orderly market.” The government can legitimately penalize non-market behaviours.

But of course, the dichotomy is a false one. The state is present in all markets, and often in just as much detail as the C18th police des grains. The rhetoric of ‘free markets’ is misleading.

I certainly agree with this last point, as does anybody who (like me) has spent some time as an economic regulator (the UK Competition Commission in my case). Modern economies are highly regulated, and that goes for the Anglo-Saxons as much as anyone else. I don’t know nearly enough about the C18th or the literature on punishment to evaluate those parts of Harcourt’s book. But it certainly offers food for thought.

 

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