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Christine A. Desan

Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law

Christine A. Desan
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Christine Desan is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law.  She teaches about the political economy of capitalism, the constitutional law of money, the international monetary system, constitutional history, and legal theory. She is the winner of the 2024 Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence at Harvard Law School. Her book, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2014), pioneered the constitutional approach to money and was recognized as “one of the most important legal histories of our time” by her peers in a 2023 scholarly retrospective.  The book argues that a radical change in money’s design introduced modern capitalism: the government delegated money creation to private investors, institutionalized the profit motive as the engine of the political economy, and privileged credit allocation by banks, which distribute the money supply as they expand it.

Subsequent work explores the impact of that shift on productivity and inequality, distribution, value theory, and economic modeling.  Her books include A Cultural History of Money in the Age Enlightenment, Christine Desan, ed., The Cultural History Series on Money, William Maurer, gen. ed. (Bloomsbury Publishing Co., 2019) (see Strange New Music:  The Monetary Composition Made by the Enlightenment Quartet); and American Capitalism: New Histories, Sven Beckert and Christine Desan, eds. (Columbia University Press, 2018). 

Representative rticles include “The Monetary Structure of Economic Activity,” 86 Law and Contemporary Problems 77 (2024); “Money’s Design Elements: Debt, Liquidity, and the Pledge of Value from Medieval Coin to Modern “Repo”,  Banking Law and Finance Review 331 (2022); “The Key to Value (2.0): The Debate over Commensurability in Neoclassical and Credit Approaches to Money,” 83 Law and Contemporary Problems, in I. Feichtner and G. Gordon, eds., Studies in Value (Routledge, 2022); and “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).  She explores the genealogy of commercial banking and its democratic deficit in the working paper, “How to Spend a Trillion Dollars: Our Monetary Hardwiring, Why It Matters, and What We Should Do About It,” Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 22-04.

Desan is the founder and managing editor of, a website that explores money as a critical site of governance, and organized the conference series, Money as a Democratic Medium (2018 and 2023).  She also co-founded Harvard’s Program on the Study of Capitalism, an interdisciplinary project designed to bring together classes, resources, research funds, and advising aimed at exploring that topic. With its co-director, Prof. Sven Beckert (History), she taught the Program’s anchoring research seminar, the Workshop on the Political Economy of Modern Capitalism, from 2005 to 2015. Desan is on the Steering Committee of the Massachusetts Public Banking and co-authored legislation that would establish a state bank designed to reach borrowers in marginalized communities, cities and towns, enterprises aimed at climate change, and other underserved ends.

Desan convened the Warren Center Workshop on “Capitalism’s Hardwiring” at Harvard University in 2022-2023, and the WMQ-ESMI Workshop on “Money in Vast Early America” at the Huntington Library in 2023. She delivered the Adam Smith Annual Lecture at the University of Glasgow in 2019. She 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. She 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.