NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

The Rents From Trade and Coercive Institutions: Removing the Sugar Coating

Christian Dippel, Avner Greif, Daniel Trefler

NBER Working Paper No. 20958
Issued in February 2015
NBER Program(s):   DAE   ITI   POL

The 19th century collapse of world sugar prices should have depressed wages in the British West Indies sugar colonies. It did not. We explain this by showing how lower prices weakened the power of the white planter elite and thus led to an easing of the coercive institutions that depressed wages e.g., institutions that kept land out of the hands of peasants. Using unique data for 14 British West Indies sugar colonies from 1838 to 1913, we examine the impact of the collapse of sugar prices on wages and incarceration rates. We find that in colonies that were poorly suited for sugar cane cultivation (an exogenous colony characteristic), the planter elite declined in power and the institutions they created and supported became less coercive. As a result, wages rose by 20% and incarceration rates per capita were cut in half. In contrast, in colonies that were highly suited for sugar cane there was little change in the power of the planter elite --- as a result, institutions did not change, the market-based mechanisms of standard trade theory were salient, and wages fell by 24%. In short, movements in the terms of trade induced changes in coercive institutions, changes that are central for understanding how the terms of trade affects wages.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20958

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