How To Organize Economies: An Overview of Economic Systems

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 insures that, for example, the number of televisions a society provides is the same as the amount it needs and wants? Who insures that the right number of employees work in the electronics industry? Who insures 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 the 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.

The image is a photograph of people riding camels in front of two pyramids in Egypt.
A Command Economy Ancient Egypt was an example of a command economy. (Credit: Jay Bergesen/Flickr Creative Commons)

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, 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 it 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.

The image is a photograph of the New York Stock Exchange’s entrance
A Market Economy Nothing says “market” more than The New York Stock Exchange. (Credit: Erik Drost/Flickr Creative Commons)

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) is a prime example of a market which 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.) Supply of goods and services depends on what 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 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.

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
Economic Freedoms, 2016 (Source: The Heritage Foundation, 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, Country Rankings,
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