Abstract

http://ssrn.com/abstract=1520143
 
 

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The Economics of Labor Coercion


Daron Acemoglu


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Economics; Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR); National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Alexander Wolitzky


Stanford University - Department of Economics

November 29, 2009

MIT Department of Economics Working Paper No. 09-31

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 the slave trade makes slaves worse off, conditional on enslavement, and that coercion is more viable in industries that do not require relationship-specific investment by workers.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 61

Keywords: coercion, feudalism, labor scarcity, principal-agent, slavery, supermodularity

JEL Classification: D23, D74, D86, J01, P16

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Date posted: December 8, 2009  

Suggested Citation

Acemoglu, Daron and Wolitzky, Alexander, The Economics of Labor Coercion (November 29, 2009). MIT Department of Economics Working Paper No. 09-31. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1520143 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1520143

Contact Information

Daron Acemoglu (Contact Author)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Economics ( email )
50 Memorial Drive
Room E52-380b
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States
617-253-1927 (Phone)
617-253-1330 (Fax)
Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR)
77 Bastwick Street
London, EC1V 3PZ
United Kingdom
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
Alexander Wolitzky
Stanford University - Department of Economics ( email )
Landau Economics Building
579 Serra Mall
Stanford, CA 94305-6072
United States
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