the contracts workers entered into freely had these features you mention, regardless of whether workers/employers tried to stipulate otherwise. In other words, principles like entirety were considered to be structural features of the contract, which judges enforced, even in the face of express stipulations by the parties to the contrary. Even if legislatures tried to overturn these provisions. That’s the other piece of “feudalism” that often gets lost in these discussions. So the notion that there was a right to free contract — which is so common in conservative and liberal and left accounts of the period — actually overlooks the fact that neither party to the contract (but especially workers) had the juridical right (let alone practical ability) to determine all of the content of those contracts. That’s what the structure of common law and judicial power entailed, and it remained intact — despite the Constitution and an array of social movements to the contrary — well into the turn of the century. This, by the way, was also true of marriage contracts.
Also I hadn’t realized that friend-of-the-blog and economic historian Suresh Naidu has dug into post these topics in two pretty impressive papers. First up, dealing with some of the serfdom aspects of 19th century Southern labor, is Recruitment Restrictions and Labor Markets: Evidence from the Post-Bellum U.S. South. Abstract:
This paper estimates the impact of recruitment restrictions on job-to-job transitions and wages in the post-bellum U.S. South. I estimate the effects of criminal fines charged for enticement (offers made to workers already under contract) on sharecropper mobility, tenancy choice and agricultural wages. I find that a $13 (10% increase in the fine charged for enticement lowered the probability of a move by black sharecroppers by 12%, lowered daily wages by 1 cent (.1%) and lowered the returns to experience for blacks by 0.6% per year. These results are consistent with an on-the-job search model, where the enticement fine raises the cost of offering a job to employed workers.
Here’s an interesting result from his paper on criminal penalties against industrial worker in 19th century England, Coercive Contract Enforcement: Law and the Labor Market in 19th Century Industrial Britain (my bold):
British Master and Servant law made employee contract breach a criminal offense until 1875. We develop a contracting model generating equilibrium contract breach and prosecutions, then exploit exogenous changes in output prices to examine the effects of labor demand shocks on prosecutions. Positive shocks in the textile, iron, and coal industries increased prosecutions. Following the abolition of criminal sanctions, wages differentially rose in counties that had experienced more prosecutions, and wages responded more to labor demand shocks. Coercive contract enforcement was applied in industrial Britain; restricted mobility allowed workers to commit to risk-sharing contracts with lower, but less volatile, wages.
Fun fact from the paper: “10,000 Master and Servant prosecutions per year between 1858 and 1875 – more prosecutions than for petty larceny.”
Notice that bolded text. Under these feudal contracts, contracts that work to reduce mobility, wages are both lower and less volatile. People are worried about volatile wages, and, especially since the work of Jacob Hacker put wage volatility onto the agenda, it’s a focus for liberals as well.
One way to deal with wage and income volatility is to adopt feudal mechanisms – let your employers jail you if they aren’t happy, let them hit you, let them prevent you from leaving your job, let them pay you once a year and be able to threaten that pay. Another way to reduce this kind of volatility is through the liberal social safety net – provide social insurance for the unemployed, delink health care from employment, make sure a baseline old-age pension is in place for the elderly, etc.
Which option for income volatility reduction do you prefer? If you are a strict libertarian, you’d have to go with the former. If you don’t have the freedom to enter freely into the most coercive labor contracts imaginable, are you even free? The road to serfdom is a government traveled road only. I understand the logic of it, but I’d go with the second option instead.