Public Choice

, Volume 157, Issue 1–2, pp 57–71 | Cite as

The political economy of the Reconstruction Era’s race riots

  • Art Carden
  • Christopher J. Coyne


This paper analyzes the political economy of the Reconstruction Era’s (1865–1877) race riots through the economic logic of rules. The central argument is that the race riots were not an inevitable outcome at the end of the Civil War, but instead occurred because of the absence of effective rules to raise the cost of engaging in violence. We offer a general framework of ‘rule stickiness’ to analyze the process of rule reform. This framework offers insight into the conditions influencing the enforcement costs of formal rules, as well as the likelihood of third-party enforcers effectively monitoring and punishing rule breakers. The Memphis race riot of 1866 is provided as a case study to illuminate the explanatory power of the theoretical framework.


Reconstruction Era Race riots Rule reform Rule stickiness Memphis riot of 1866 

JEL Classification

D74 B52 N41 



We would like to thank our anonymous referees and the editors for use comments and suggestions. This research was supported by a generous grant from the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College. Carden acknowledges the financial support of the American Institute for Economic Research, where he was a Visiting Research Fellow during summer of 2009 and 2011, and a CAP-Mellon Study Leave at Rhodes College during Spring 2010. Tyler Ponder provided research assistance during early explorations of these themes in summer 2008, and Julie Doub, Rachel Smith, Rachel Webb and Sameer Warraich assisted with the research at various stages. Numerous people proofread different drafts, including Julia Clapper, George Ryan Connor, and Linda Gibson. Timothy Huebner graciously directed us to student research on the Memphis Riot, and Charles McKinney provided valuable discussions. William Shughart, Peter T. Leeson, Stephanie Moussalli, Luigi Marco Bassani, and several anonymous referees offered very useful and valuable comments. We also acknowledge the assistance and support of the Memphis and Shelby County Room at the Benjamin C. Hooks Central Library in Memphis. Participants in a seminar at Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and at the 2009 meetings of the Tennessee Conference of Historians, the 2009 Southern Economic Association, the 2010 Association of Private Enterprise Education meetings, the 2010 Istituto Bruno Leoni Mises Seminar, and the 2010 Missouri Valley Economic Association provided valuable comments and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Economics, Finance and Quantitative Analysis Organization: Brock School of BusinessSamford UniversityBirminghamUSA
  2. 2.Department of EconomicsGeorge Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA

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