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'Monetary Structure and Economic Activity'

Event details of ACLE & CSECL Seminar: Christine Desan (Harvard Law School)
Date 16 December 2019
Time 15:30 -17:00
Roeterseilandcampus - building A
Room A3.01


The modern approach to the market as a place with autonomy depends on a certain view of money. According to that view, money is a neutral technology that expresses individual choices made about real goods and services. But the controversies over money that regularly arise in political communities reveal that money is far from a transparent medium. It is a legal project that structures economic activity. Money literally makes the market. 

The article extracts a definition of money from the most recent controversy over it. That controversy, the debate over safe assets, suggests that moneys overwhelmingly share a particular character:  they are made of sovereign debt, short-term IOUs, that are enabled to act as cash by the sovereign who issues them. The article constructs a thought experiment to illuminate exactly why governments would create money according to this pattern. The experiment suggests, first, that governments gain enormous capacity when they convert in-kind obligations due to them into countable units that can be anticipated, spent, and levied. Second, governments benefit even more when they enable those units to circulate, a feat they manage by enforcing transactions in law – making money the default mode of payment for contracts, torts, property, and other transactions.   That activity takes public authority into the intricacies of personal exchange, curating it in ways that condition its exercise.

The article explores each of these qualities – the identity of money as sovereign debt and its enhancement as cash – because each of them represents an initiative that fundamentally reconfigures a society’s political economy. In that moment, money departs its reputation as a neutral technology and the market loses its claim as the product of private choice. To the contrary, economic exchange depends on a medium made in law and travels within the channels that medium enables through law.


Amsterdam Law School, building REC A, Room A3.01

Roeterseilandcampus - building A

Room A3.01

Nieuwe Achtergracht 166
1018 WV Amsterdam


Please register before 13 December:

One-to-one Meeting Request

Click here for a one-to-one meeting with Professor Christine Desan on 17 December (next day) 2019. 

About the speaker

Christine Desan teaches about the international monetary system, the constitutional law of money, constitutional history, political economy, and legal theory. She is the co-founder of Harvard’s Program on the Study of Capitalism, an interdisciplinary project that brings together classes, resources, research funds, and advising aimed at exploring that topic. Desan was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study during the 2015-2016 academic year and at the Massachusetts Historical Society in the fall of 2016.

Desan’s research explores money as a legal and political project, one that configures the market it sets out to measure. Her approach aims to open economic orthodoxy to question, particularly insofar as it assumes money as a neutral instrument and markets as autonomous phenomena.

She has recently published a book called Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is also the editor of Inside Money:  Re-Theorizing Liquidity (in progress), and co-editor with Sven Beckert of Capitalism in America:  New Histories (2018). Her articles include "The Constitutional Approach to Money:  Monetary Design and the Production of the Modern World," in Money Talks:  Essays in Honor of Viviana Zelizer, Bandelj and Wherry, eds.,  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017) and “Strange New Music:  The Monetary Composition Made by the Enlightenment Quartet,” forthcoming in Money in the Age of Enlightenment (Bloomsbury Press, 2019).

Desan is on the Board of the Institute for Global Law and Policy, is a faculty member of the Program on American Studies at Harvard University, and has served on the editorial board for the Law and History Review and as an advisory editor of Eighteenth Century Studies. In Brookline, MA, Desan served for 10 years on a town committee that researched and drafted legislation promoting campaign finance reform, and that supervised that reform once it was enacted.

About the Event

This event is jointly organised by the Amsterdam Center for Law and Economics (ACLE) and the Centre for the Study of European Contract Law (CSECL). The ACLE is a joint initiative of the Faculty of Economics and Business and the Faculty of Law at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The objective of the ACLE is to promote high-quality interdisciplinary research at the intersection between law and economics. The CSECL is a centre of the Faculty of Law at UvA and its mission is to promote high-quality research and education on European contract law.