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The Economics of Labor Coercion

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  • Daron Acemoglu
  • Alexander Wolitzky

Abstract

The majority of labor transactions throughout much of history and a significant fraction of such transactions in many developing countries today are "coercive", in the sense that force or the threat of force plays a central role in convincing workers to accept employment or its terms. We propose a tractable principal-agent model of coercion, based on the idea that coercive activities by employers, or "guns", affect the participation constraint of workers. We show that coercion and effort are complements, so that coercion increases effort. Nevertheless, coercion is always "inefficient", in the sense of reducing utilitarian social welfare. Better outside options for workers reduce coercion, because of the complementarity between coercion and effort: workers with better outside option exert lower effort in equilibrium and thus are coerced less. Greater demand for labor increases coercion because it increases equilibrium effort. We investigate the interaction between outside options, market prices, and other economic variables by embedding the (coercive) principal-agent relationship in a general equilibrium setup, and study when and how labor scarcity encourages coercion. We show that general (market) equilibrium interactions working through prices lead to a positive relationship between labor scarcity and coercion along the lines of ideas suggested by Domar, while those working through outside options lead to a negative relationship similar to ideas advanced in neo-Malthusian historical analyses of the decline of feudalism. A third effect, which is present when investment in guns must be made before the realization of contracting opportunities, also leads to a negative relationship between labor scarcity and coercion. Our model also predicts that coercion is more viable in industries that do not require relationship-specific investment by workers.
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Suggested Citation

  • Daron Acemoglu & Alexander Wolitzky, 2011. "The Economics of Labor Coercion," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 79(2), pages 555-600, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:ecm:emetrp:v:79:y:2011:i:2:p:555-600
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Cinnirella, Francesco & Hornung, Erik, 2016. "Landownership concentration and the expansion of education," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 121(C), pages 135-152.
    2. Bertocchi, Graziella & Dimico, Arcangelo, 2014. "Slavery, education, and inequality," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 70(C), pages 197-209.
    3. Felipe González & Guillermo Marshall & Suresh Naidu, 2016. "Start-up Nation? Slave Wealth and Entrepreneurship in Civil War Maryland," NBER Working Papers 22483, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Sonnabend, Hendrik, 2015. "Good Intentions and Unintended Evil? Clients’ Punishment in the Market for Sex Services with Voluntary and Involuntary Providers," EconStor Preprints 110682, ZBW - German National Library of Economics.
    5. Gerard Padró I Miquel & Pierre Yared, 2012. "The Political Economy of Indirect Control," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 127(2), pages 947-1015.
    6. Nunn, Nathan & Trefler, Daniel, 2014. "Domestic Institutions as a Source of Comparative Advantage," Handbook of International Economics, Elsevier.
    7. Lagerlöf, Nils-Petter, 2016. "Born free," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 121(C), pages 1-10.
    8. Bernd Beber & Christopher Blattman, 2010. "The Industrial Organization of Rebellion: The Logic of Forced Labor and Child Soldiering," HiCN Working Papers 72, Households in Conflict Network.
    9. repec:eee:jetheo:v:174:y:2018:i:c:p:124-183 is not listed on IDEAS
    10. Motavasseli, Ali, 2016. "Essays in environmental policy and household economics," Other publications TiSEM b32e287e-169b-4e89-9878-1, Tilburg University, School of Economics and Management.
    11. Fernando Mendiola, 2014. "Of Firms and Captives: Railway Infrastructures and the Economics of Forced Labour (Spain, 1937 – 1957)," Documentos de Trabajo (DT-AEHE) 1405, Asociacion Espa–ola de Historia Economica.
    12. Bobonis, Gustavo J. & Morrow, Peter M., 2014. "Labor coercion and the accumulation of human capital," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 108(C), pages 32-53.
    13. Duffie, Darrell & Qiao, Lei & Sun, Yeneng, 2018. "Dynamic directed random matching," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 174(C), pages 124-183.
    14. Antinolfi, Gaetano & Carli, Francesco, 2015. "Costly monitoring, dynamic incentives, and default," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 159(PA), pages 105-119.
    15. Andrei Markevich & Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, 2017. "The Economic Effects of the Abolition of Serfdom: Evidence from the Russian Empire," Working Papers w0237, Center for Economic and Financial Research (CEFIR).
    16. Howard Bodenhorn, 2011. "Manumission in nineteenth-century Virginia," Cliometrica, Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC), vol. 5(2), pages 145-164, June.
    17. Arimoto, Yutaka & Machikita, Tomohiro & Tsubota, Kenmei, 2018. "Broker versus social networks in adverse working conditions: cross-sectional evidence from Cambodian migrants in Thailand," IDE Discussion Papers 686, Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization(JETRO).
    18. James A. Robinson & Ragnar Torvik, 2011. "Institutional Comparative Statics," NBER Working Papers 17106, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    19. repec:cup:jechis:v:77:y:2017:i:02:p:373-405_00 is not listed on IDEAS
    20. He, Wei & Sun, Xiang & Sun, Yeneng, 2017. "Modeling infinitely many agents," Theoretical Economics, Econometric Society, vol. 12(2), May.
    21. Ogilvie, Sheilagh & Carus, A.W., 2014. "Institutions and Economic Growth in Historical Perspective," Handbook of Economic Growth,in: Handbook of Economic Growth, edition 1, volume 2, chapter 8, pages 403-513 Elsevier.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D23 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Organizational Behavior; Transaction Costs; Property Rights
    • D74 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - Conflict; Conflict Resolution; Alliances; Revolutions
    • D86 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Economics of Contract Law
    • J01 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - General - - - Labor Economics: General
    • P16 - Economic Systems - - Capitalist Systems - - - Political Economy of Capitalism

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