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.
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Some contemporaries charged that the Report was explicitly political as two of the members of the Investigating Committee were Radical Republicans (Worley 2004). Waller (1984: 234) writes that the Report was “clearly political,” and Lovett (1979: 30) writes that the report was explicitly issued to discredit Andrew Johnson by “show[ing] the disloyalty of President Andrew Johnson’s home state.” However, the Report also contains information on the views of the members of the committee’s conservative majority. Even if the Report was motivated by a radical political purpose, it does not necessarily lend itself to radical political conclusions. Further, by supplementing the report with information from additional sources we are able to counteract some of the potential biases. U.S. House (1867) contains a similar investigation of the New Orleans riot of 1866.
Of course another layer of enforcement could be established to constrain the rule-enforcers who would otherwise fail to enforce the formal rules, but this just pushes the problem up another level. This is the classic “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“who will guard the guards themselves?”) problem. At some level of enforcement the informal rules must align with the formal rules in order for the latter to be enforced at all.
The demand for non-slave labor increased due to a law passed in Alabama in the early 1850s holding those that contracted with slave owners to be fully liable for any damages to the slave occurring in tasks which were “contrary to the ordinary pursuits for which slaves are used” (quoted in Walker 1998: 36). Railroad construction was notoriously dangerous with a high risk of bodily injury and given the precedent established by the Alabama law, railroad companies substituted white labor for slave labor.
The Memphis Argus (1866b) also reported that some blacks had waved a black flag at one point, but the Argus was one of the papers condemned by the investigators and others for its role in provoking the violence. For an economic analysis of flags as a mechanism for signaling agent type, see Leeson (2009b: 82–106).
There is debate over the number of police and firefighters involved in the riot. Sixty-eight rioters were identified by name in the Congressional Report. Of these, Waller (1984: 237) argues that 16 were police officers and seven were firefighters. Examining payroll records and other sources, Worley (2004: 54–55) could confirm that only two of those named as rioters “were actually working as firemen at the time of the riots” and that only seven of the named rioters “were definitely working as police officers at the time.” No matter the actual number, the fact that current and former police officers played prominent roles in the riot suggests a relatively low probability of punishment for other rioters, supporting our point regarding the reduced cost of engaging in criminal behaviors.
There also were reports that Park was drunk and unfit for duty as the mayor of the city. For example, the report on the riot noted that Park was “unequal to the occasion, either from sympathy with the mob, or on account of drunkenness during the whole time” (U.S. House 1866: 23).
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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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Carden, A., Coyne, C.J. The political economy of the Reconstruction Era’s race riots. Public Choice 157, 57–71 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-012-9955-7
- Reconstruction Era
- Race riots
- Rule reform
- Rule stickiness
- Memphis riot of 1866