Theses Doctoral

Political Property Rights: Essays on Economic Opportunity Under Selective Rule of Law

Bhandari, Abhit

Secure property rights are a major predictor of economic growth, yet property rights in much of the world are a function of political power. Those with political connections have privileged access to state institutions, benefit from preferential contract enforcement, and face fewer risks of expropriation in the private sector. This dissertation examines how consumers and firms navigate the complex interaction between formal and informal institutions in these environments of selectively enforced rule of law. I use original experimental data from Senegal, a state that epitomizes political property rights.

In Paper 1, I argue that political connections produce moral hazard in exchange and introduce biases in judicial enforcement. I present evidence from a field experiment in which I created and operated a sales company, randomizing political connections and formal contracts during transactions. The results show that asymmetric political connections decrease buyers’ propensities to trade and that formal contracts only increase exchange among connected buyers. This work challenges conventional wisdom and extant literature on the value of political connections and formal contracts in the private sectors of developing countries.

Paper 2 examines how political connections and formal contracts, among other state and nonstate influences, affect the behavior of firms under selective rule of law. To illustrate the complicated decision calculus that firms face when social, formal, and political factors all motivate exchange, I implemented a conjoint experiment with 2,389 firm managers. The results show that firms avoid deals with partners that have low-to-mid-level political connections, yet seek out deals with the most highly connected firms—despite believing they are more likely to breach contracts. These results demonstrate the countervailing effects of political connections and suggest why consumers and firms may react to them differently.

Finally, Paper 3 asks how firms enforce their property rights when deals go astray. I argue that contract formality can shape firms’ property security strategies and demand for rule of law, and test this using evidence from a survey experiment administered to firms in both the formal and informal economies. I present descriptive evidence that enforcement strategies differ by firm formality status and political connections. The experimental findings show that while formal contracts increase the use of legal enforcement institutions, they also widen the enforcement gap between formal and informal firms.

Together, these papers present theory and evidence of politically determined economic behavior under selective rule of law. The results imply that political connections are a form of rent-seeking that can suppress overall trade and produce market inefficiencies. Under these conditions, state institutions may unintentionally exacerbate political and economic inequalities.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Humphreys, Macartan N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 6, 2020