Slavery, Reconstruction, and Bureaucratic Capacity in the American South

Slavery, Reconstruction, and Bureaucratic Capacity in the American South

By Pavithra Suryanarayan, Johns Hopkins University and Steven White, Syracuse University

Conventional political economy models predict taxation will increase after franchise expansion to low-income voters. Yet, contrary to expectations, in ranked societies—where social status is a cleavage—elites can instead build cross-class coalitions to undertake a strategy of bureaucratic weakening to limit future redistributive taxation. We study a case where status hierarchies were particularly extreme: the post-Civil War American South. During Reconstruction, under federal oversight, per capita taxation was higher in counties where slavery had been more extensive before the war, as predicted by standard theoretical models. After Reconstruction ended, however, taxes fell and bureaucratic capacity was weaker where slavery had been widespread. Moreover, higher intrawhite economic inequality was associated with lower taxes and weaker capacity after Reconstruction in formerly high-slavery counties. These findings on the interaction between intrawhite economic inequality and pre-War slavery suggest that elites built cross-class coalitions against taxation where whites sought to protect their racial status.