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Debtors’ prisons in America: An economic analysis

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  • Baker, Matthew J.
  • Cosgel, Metin
  • Miceli, Thomas J.

Abstract

Debtors’ prisons have been commonplace throughout history, including in the United States. While imprisonment for debt no doubt elicited some repayment by benefactors of the debtor, we argue that its primary function was to deter default in the first place by giving borrowers an incentive to disclose hidden assets. Because of its cost, however, imprisonment was destined to be replaced by more efficient ways of preventing borrowers from sheltering assets. Empirical analysis of state laws banning imprisonment for debt provides some support for this argument. In particular, the results suggest that states in which the publishing industry developed sooner (thus facilitating the flow of information) were more likely to enact early bans on imprisonment for debt.

Suggested Citation

  • Baker, Matthew J. & Cosgel, Metin & Miceli, Thomas J., 2012. "Debtors’ prisons in America: An economic analysis," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 84(1), pages 216-228.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jeborg:v:84:y:2012:i:1:p:216-228
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2012.07.010
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Patrick Bolton & Mathias Dewatripont, 2005. "Contract Theory," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262025760, March.
    2. Gary S. Becker, 1974. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," NBER Chapters,in: Essays in the Economics of Crime and Punishment, pages 1-54 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Polinsky, A. Mitchell & Shavell, Steven, 1984. "The optimal use of fines and imprisonment," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 24(1), pages 89-99, June.
    4. Bester, Helmut, 1987. "The role of collateral in credit markets with imperfect information," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 31(4), pages 887-899, June.
    5. Levitt, Steven D., 1997. "Incentive compatibility constraints as an explanation for the use of prison sentences instead of fines," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(2), pages 179-192, June.
    6. Rea, Samuel A, Jr, 1984. "Arm-breaking, Consumer Credit and Personal Bankruptcy," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 22(2), pages 188-208, April.
    7. Townsend, Robert M., 1979. "Optimal contracts and competitive markets with costly state verification," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 21(2), pages 265-293, October.
    8. Douglas Gale & Martin Hellwig, 1985. "Incentive-Compatible Debt Contracts: The One-Period Problem," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 52(4), pages 647-663.
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    More about this item

    Keywords

    Debtors’ prison; Default; Imprisonment;

    JEL classification:

    • D82 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Asymmetric and Private Information; Mechanism Design
    • E51 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Monetary Policy, Central Banking, and the Supply of Money and Credit - - - Money Supply; Credit; Money Multipliers
    • G21 - Financial Economics - - Financial Institutions and Services - - - Banks; Other Depository Institutions; Micro Finance Institutions; Mortgages
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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