Chapter 2.1 – How To Organize Economies: An Overview of Economic Systems

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Contrast traditional economies, command economies, and market economies
  • Explain gross domestic product (GDP)
  • Assess the importance and effects of globalization

Think about what a complex system a modern economy is. It includes all production of goods and services, all buying and selling, all employment. The economic life of every individual is interrelated, at least to a small extent, with the economic lives of thousands or even millions of other individuals. Who organizes and coordinates this system? Who ensures that, for example, the number of televisions a society provides is the same as the amount it needs and wants? Who ensures that the right number of employees work in the electronics industry? Who ensures that televisions are produced in the best way possible? How does it all get done?


There are at least three ways that societies organize an economy. The first is the traditional economy, which is the oldest economic system and is used in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. Traditional economies organize their economic affairs the way they have always done (i.e., tradition). Occupations stay in the family. Most families are farmers who grow crops using traditional methods. What you produce is what you consume. Because tradition drives the way of life, there is little economic progress or development.

2 pyramids in Egypt
Figure 2.1 A Command Economy Ancient Egypt was an example of a command economy. Pyramids at Giza. By Jay Bergesen. Source: Flickr CC BY 2.0

Command economies are very different. In a command economy, economic effort is devoted to goals passed down from a ruler or ruling class. Ancient Egypt was a good example: a large part of economic life was devoted to building pyramids, like those in Figure 1.7, for the pharaohs. Medieval manor life is another example: the lord provided the land for growing crops and protection in the event of war. In return, vassals provided labor and soldiers to do the lord’s bidding. In the last century, communism emphasized command economies. In a command economy, the government decides what goods and services will be produced and what prices they will charge for them. The government decides what methods of production to use and sets wages for workers. The government provides many necessities like healthcare and education for free. Currently, Cuba and North Korea have command economies.

An American flag hangs above the front of the New York Stock Exchange
Figure 2.2 A Market Economy Nothing says “market” more than The New York Stock Exchange. New York Stock Exchange Facade 2015. By Jeffrey Zeldman. Source: Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

Although command economies have a very centralized structure for economic decisions, market economies have a very decentralized structure. A market is an institution that brings together buyers and sellers of goods or services, who may be either individuals or businesses. The New York Stock Exchange (Figure 1.8) is a prime example of a market that brings buyers and sellers together. In a market economy, decision-making is decentralized. Market economies are based on private enterprise: the private individuals or groups of private individuals own and operate the means of production (resources and businesses). Businesses supply goods and services based on demand. (In a command economy, by contrast, the government owns resources and businesses.) The supply of goods and services depends on the demands. A person’s income is based on his or her ability to convert resources (especially labor) into something that society values. The more society values the person’s output, the higher the income (think Lady Gaga or LeBron James). In this scenario, market forces, not governments, determine economic decisions. Most economies in the real world are mixed. They combine elements of command and market (and even traditional) systems. The U.S. economy is positioned toward the market-oriented end of the spectrum. Many countries in Europe and Latin America, while primarily market-oriented, have a greater degree of government involvement in economic decisions than the U.S. economy. China and Russia, while over the past several decades have moved more in the direction of having a market-oriented system, remain closer to the command economy end of the spectrum. The Heritage Foundation provides information about how free and thus market-oriented different countries’ are, as the following Clear It Up feature discusses. For a similar ranking, but one that defines freedom more broadly, see the Cato Foundation’s Human Freedom Index.



What countries are considered economically free?
Who is in control of economic decisions? Are people free to do what they want and to work where they want? Are businesses free to produce when they want and what they choose, and to hire and fire as they wish? Are banks free to choose who will receive loans, or does the government control these kinds of choices? Each year, researchers at the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal look at 50 different categories of economic freedom for countries around the world. They give each nation a score based on the extent of economic freedom in each category.

The 2016 Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom report ranked 178 countries around the world: Table 2.1 lists some examples of the most free and the least free countries. Several additional countries were not ranked because of extreme instability that made judgments about economic freedom impossible. These countries include Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen.

The assigned rankings are inevitably based on estimates, yet even these rough measures can be useful for discerning trends. In 2015, 101 of the 178 included countries shifted toward greater economic freedom, although 77 of the countries shifted toward less economic freedom. In recent decades, the overall trend has been a higher level of economic freedom around the world.

Table 2.1 Economic Freedoms, 2016
Most Economic Freedom Least Economic Freedom
1. Hong Kong 167. Timor-Leste
2. Singapore 168. Democratic Republic of Congo
3. New Zealand 169. Argentina
4. Switzerland 170. Equatorial Guinea
5. Australia 171. Iran
6. Canada 172. Republic of Congo
7. Chile 173. Eritrea
8. Ireland 174. Turkmenistan
9. Estonia 175. Zimbabwe
10. United Kingdom 176. Venezuela
11. United States 177. Cuba
12. Denmark 178. North Korea


Regulations: The Rules of the Game

Markets and government regulations are always entangled. There is no such thing as an absolutely free market. Regulations always define the “rules of the game” in the economy. Economies that are primarily market-oriented have fewer regulations—ideally just enough to maintain an even playing field for participants. At a minimum, these laws govern matters like safeguarding private property against theft, protecting people from violence, enforcing legal contracts, preventing fraud, and collecting taxes. Conversely, even the most command-oriented economies operate using markets. How else would buying and selling occur? The government heavily regulates decisions of what to produce and prices to charge. Heavily regulated economies often have underground economies (or black markets), which are markets where the buyers and sellers make transactions without the government’s approval.

The question of how to organize economic institutions is typically not a black-or-white choice between all markets or all government but instead involves a balancing act over the appropriate combination of market freedom and government rules.

A cago ship off of San Fransisco
Figure 2.3 Globalization Cargo ships are one mode of transportation for shipping goods in the global economy. Cargo Ship. By Raul Valdez. Source: Wikimedia  CC BY 2.0

The Rise of Globalization

Recent decades have seen a trend toward globalization, which is the expanding cultural, political, and economic connections between people around the world. One measure of this is the increased buying and selling of goods, services, and assets across national borders—in other words, international trade and financial capital flows.

Globalization has occurred for a number of reasons. Improvements in shipping, as illustrated by the container ship in Figure 2.3, and air cargo have driven down transportation costs. Innovations in computing and telecommunications have made it easier and cheaper to manage long-distance economic connections of production and sales. Many valuable products and services in the modern economy can take the form of information—for example: computer software; financial advice; travel planning; music, books and movies; and blueprints for designing a building. These products and many others can be transported over telephones and computer networks at ever-lower costs. Finally, international agreements and treaties between countries have encouraged greater trade.

Table 2.1 presents one measure of globalization. It shows the percentage of domestic economic production that was exported for a selection of countries from 2010 to 2015, according to an entity known as TheWorld Bank. Exports are the goods and services that one produces domestically and sells abroad. Imports are the goods and services that one produces abroad and then sells domestically. Gross domestic product (GDP) measures the size of total production in an economy. Thus, the ratio of exports divided by GDP measures what share of a country’s total economic production is sold in other countries.

Table 2.1.1 The Extent of Globalization: Higher-income countries
Country 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
United States 12.4 13.6 13.6 13.5 13.5 12.6
Belgium 76.2 81.4 82.2 82.8 84.0 84.4
Canada 29.1 30.7 30.0 30.1 31.7 31.5
France 26.0 27.8 28.1 28.3 29.0 30.0

Table 2.1.1 The Extent of Globalization: Higher-income countries

Table 2.1.2 The Extent of Globalization: Middle-income countries
Country 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Brazil 10.9 11.9 12.6 12.6 11.2 13.0
Mexico 29.9 31.2 32.6 31.7 32.3 35.3
South Korea 49.4 55.7 56.3 53.9 50.3 45.9

Table 2.1.2 The Extent of Globalization: Middle-income countries

Table 2.1.3 The Extent of Globalization: Lower-income countries
Country 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Chad 36.8 38.9 36.9 32.2 34.2 29.8
China 29.4 28.5 27.3 26.4 23.9 22.4
India 22.0 23.9 24.0 24.8 22.9
Nigeria 25.3 31.3 31.4 18.0 18.4

Table 2.1.3 The Extent of Globalization: Low-income countries

In recent decades, the export/GDP ratio has generally risen, both worldwide and for the U.S. economy. Interestingly, the share of U.S. exports in proportion to the U.S. economy is well below the global average, in part because large economies like the United States can contain more of the division of labor inside their national borders. However, smaller economies like Belgium, Korea, and Canada need to trade across their borders with other countries to take full advantage of the division of labor, specialization, and economies of scale. In this sense, the enormous U.S. economy is less affected by globalization than most other countries.

Tables 2.1.x indicate that many medium and low-income countries around the world, like Mexico and China, have also experienced a surge of globalization in recent decades. If an astronaut in orbit could put on special glasses that make all economic transactions visible as brightly colored lines and look down at Earth, the astronaut would see the planet covered with connections.

Despite the rise in globalization over the last few decades, in recent years we’ve seen significant pushback against globalization from people across the world concerned about the loss of jobs, loss of political sovereignty, and increased economic inequality. Prominent examples of this pushback include the 2016 vote in Great Britain to exit the European Union (i.e. Brexit) and the election of Donald J. Trump for President of the United States.

Hopefully, you now have an idea about economics. You will learn more about how to read and use models in economics when we study Chapter 2.3 – The Use of Mathematics in Principles of Economics.


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Agribusiness Management 101 Copyright © by William Rossman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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