Harper's Asks Harcourt Six Questions About 'The Illusion of Free Markets'

“The Illusion of Free Markets”: Six Questions for Bernard Harcourt
Scott Horton
Harper's Magazine
September 8, 2011

University of Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt is a student, but not a follower, of the Chicago School, an academic movement that has had a profound effect on America in the period since World War II, pushing the country aggressively toward an embrace of neoliberal ideas about economics and politics. In his latest book, The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order, Harcourt probes deeply into some of the contradictions inherent in the thought of the Chicago School, and exposes a striking historical parallel to its work. I put six questions to Harcourt about his new book:

1. Your book builds off an intriguing study of the eighteenth-century French PhysiocratsFrançois Quesnay, Pierre-Paul Le Mercier de la Rivière, and others — in which you suggest that their theories of economics closely parallel what we have come to think of as the Chicago School. What exactly are the parallels, and how did this idea come about?

It’s the messianic belief in natural order in economics — in spontaneous order, as Friedrich von Hayek called it — or today in the efficiency of free markets, conjoined with a faith in strong government to deal with those who are outside the natural order — who are out-of-order, or disorderly. It’s the combination of those two paradoxical tenets — of government incompetence when it comes to regulating the economy and government competence when it comes to policing and punishing — that links these thinkers. Undoubtedly there were others before the Physiocrats who brought the idea of natural order into economics — Pierre de Boisguilbert, for instance, or the Scholastics with their notion of “just price.” But Quesnay and his disciples, especially Le Mercier, did so with a doggedness, obsession, and passion that would change the way people thought — a doggedness and obsession, I should add, that resembles the persistence of Hayek or Richard Epstein. It’s that maniacal, quasi-religious faith in natural orderliness or today market efficiency that ties these thinkers together.

Faculty: 
Bernard E. Harcourt