From Moral Economy to Market Morality: The Rise and Fall of the Debtors' Prison

Friday, 3 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
CLM.2.06 (Clement House)
Alexander Roehrkasse, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
This article examines the modernization of contract enforcement and debt collection through a case study of the abolition of debtors’ prisons in New York. In the 18th century, the right of private actors to arrest and detain individuals for contractual failure was deeply naturalized. By the middle of the 19th century it was considered irrational and immoral. The author draws on archival sources to evaluate competing explanations of this historical transformation, and argues that the deinstitutionalization of civil incarceration for debt default is best understood in terms of the evolving moralization of the creditor-debtor relation. Moral change is described in terms of radical transformations in the dominant conceptions of economic causality, social order, and legitimate force. The origins of these conceptions in the organization of the market and the polity and their effects on commercial policy and practice are explained. The author draws implications from the case study for analyzing the moralization of financial actions, events and institutions.