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The Surprising Design of Market Economies

The Surprising Design of Market Economies

Bringing a fresh perspective to current debates over the “free market,” this wide-ranging look at how market economies are designed and constructed helps us understand how “the market” works and how we can build fairer and more effective markets.

Series: Constructs Series

September 2012
288 pages | 6 x 9 |

The “free market” has been a hot topic of debate for decades. Proponents tout it as a cure-all for just about everything that ails modern society, while opponents blame it for the very same ills. But the heated rhetoric obscures one very important, indeed fundamental, fact—markets don’t just run themselves; we create them.

Starting from this surprisingly simple, yet often ignored or misunderstood fact, Alex Marshall takes us on a fascinating tour of the fundamentals that shape markets and, through them, our daily economic lives. He debunks the myth of the “free market,” showing how markets could not exist without governments to create the structures through which we assert ownership of property, real and intellectual, and conduct business of all kinds. Marshall also takes a wide-ranging look at many other structures that make markets possible, including physical infrastructure ranging from roads and railroads to water systems and power lines; mental and cultural structures such as common languages and bodies of knowledge; and the international structures that allow goods, services, cash, bytes, and bits to flow freely around the globe.

Sure to stimulate a lively public conversation about the design of markets, this broadly accessible overview of how a market economy is constructed will help us create markets that are fairer, more prosperous, more creative, and more beautiful.


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Introduction. The Designer Disappears: Markets and Their Makers

Section One. On the Books: The Markets We Make by Law

  • Chapter One. Coming into Being: In Praise of Markets
  • Chapter Two. Me and Mine: Property, the First Market
  • Chapter Three. Lex Non Scripta: The Laws We Don't Make, or, the Common Law
  • Chapter Four. I Am My Brother's Keeper: Cooperatives
  • Chapter Five. Trust: How We Cooperate to Compete
  • Chapter Six. Staking Claims on the Mind: Intellectual Property
  • Chapter Seven. Little Commonwealths: Corporations and the State That Creates Them
  • Chapter Eight. The Future of Corporations

Section Two. Infrastructure: The Markets We Make by Hand

  • Chapter Nine. From Highways to Health Care: Progress through Infrastructure
  • Chapter Ten. Making Places
  • Chapter Eleven. The Great Nineteenth-Century Train Robbery
  • Chapter Twelve. A Socialist Paradise: The American Road System
  • Chapter Thirteen. Waiting for a Train Station
  • Chapter Fourteen. What We Did Before: Path Dependence and Markets
  • Chapter Fifteen. Police and Prisons: Freedom, Security, and Democracy
  • Chapter Sixteen. Why Don't You Make Me? Government and Force

Section Three. Seeding the Fields: The Markets We Make in Our Minds

  • Chapter Seventeen. Common Tongue, Common Culture, Common Markets

Section Four. The Markets We Build Abroad

  • Chapter Eighteen. By Your Bootstraps: Developing Countries and Markets
  • Chapter Nineteen. Last Night upon the Stairs: International Law

Section Five. Looking Forward: Making Better Markets

  • Conclusion. Making Better Markets
  • Afterword. My Own Story: A Circuitous Journey
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

From the way roads and rails shape our cities to the way laws shape our economies, Alex Marshall has long sought and explored the underlying systems that shape our worlds. A journalist, writer, and former Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, he is the author of How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken and Beneath the Metropolis: The Secret Lives of Cities. Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Metropolis, Planning, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Slate, Salon, Architecture, Revue Urbanisme, and many other publications.


“Offers keen insights into urban planning, public works, and even the history of New York’s onetime ambivalence toward a professional police force.”
New York Times

“Marshall’s thoughtful critique accounts for social dynamics often ignored by modern economists and is grounded in a multitude of fascinating examples, underscoring his thesis that we can, and should, debate the powers allotted to our creations, rather than let them, falsely, set the terms of their own existence.”
Publishers Weekly

“Conventional economics wittingly or unwittingly provides cover for the One Percent, by professing that ‘the market’ operates benevolently on its own. Alex Marshall gives us an entertaining, thoughtful, and well-written antidote to this dangerous abstraction.”
Huffington Post

“This book debunks the free market orthodoxy that markets are ‘natural’ things that should not be meddled with. Taking us through history from the Athenian ‘owl’ coin to the Founding Fathers, from the American Civil War to Korean economic development, from Gone with the Wind to the Sundance Film Festival, the book shows how all markets are actually built upon carefully designed ‘artificial’ structures. Having read the book, you will not be able to spread Land O’Lakes butter on your bread or drive along Route 66 in the same way as you used to. An eye-opener.”
Ha-Joon Chang, University of Cambridge, author of Bad Samaritans and 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

“Marshall is asking the right questions by focusing on the structure of the market. Unfortunately, most economic policy discussions treat market structure as a given and then ask whether the market in its existing structure should be left alone or subject to some form of regulation. The right question is whether the market could be structured better in the first place.”
Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research

“We make the rules and the rules make us. So argues Alex Marshall in this brilliant and fascinating exploration of the nature and human design of markets. A must read.”
David Morris, Cofounder, Institute for Local Self-Reliance


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca