November 27, 2023
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Contagious coercion: The effect of plagues on serfdom in the Baltics

What drives labor coercion? Do plagues increase labor coercion by creating labor scarcity?

Labor scarcity is the main hypothesized determinant of labor coercion Domar (1970), however, its effects are theoretically ambiguous and remain empirically untested. Collecting detailed archival data on the coercion intensity of all serfs in Estonia (1580s to 1730s), Tom Raster provides the first causal estimate of the effect of labor scarcity on labor coercion. He obtains quasi-exogenous variation in labor scarcity from immense spatial variation in deaths from three plagues (1605-6, 1657, 1710-2), which are uncorrelated to a host of local, pre-plague characteristics.

This historical research shows that working conditions are determined by power relations and institutions, and not simply by supply and demand. Contrarily to widely held view, labor scarcity can come with a deterioration of working conditions. These findings are also relevant for modern labour markets, e.g. for migrant workers in Gulf countries, Europe or elsewhere.



  • Labor scarcity substantially increases coercion intensity à la Domar (1970)
  • Limited outside options amplify this effect, as predicted by theoretical models
  • Labor coercion intensity decreases education and increases outmigration after the abolition of serfdom (1816-19), which legalized migration but did not outlaw coercion




  • Tom Raster, Paris School of Economics, tom.raster[at]



  •  press[at]