Theses Doctoral

Legitimizing the State of a Grievance?: Property Rights and Political Engagement

Kopas, Jacob

Can a right, as an abstract yet powerful symbol of a legitimate claim, influence individual political behavior independent of the underlying entitlement the right represents? Or are rights merely rhetorical proxies for distributional struggles? This dissertation examines whether the formal recognition of a right–in particular, a formal property right to land–can empower political engagement. I construct a theoretical framework for how legal property rights influence political behavior around two central claims. First, I argue that legal rights have an impact that goes beyond expectations of economic value or tenure security. Legal rights are powerful symbols that also legitimize claim-making and empower rights-bearers to engage in politics. In this sense, legal rights not only provide the rights-bearer with a material entitlement (i.e. an increase in economic value or material endowment), but also a political entitlement in the form of a greater legitimacy in demands for protection and benefits from the state. This increased sense of legitimacy, in turn, can spill over to influence political behavior more generally by incentivizing political participation and claim-making. I refer to this mechanism as the "symbolic effect" of rights.
My second claim is that this empowering, symbolic effect is strongest where property protections are weakest and underlying rights most vulnerable. Specifically, this occurs when the state is either unable to provide adequate guarantees or unwilling to enforce rights as a matter of course. Under such conditions, rights help define just claim-making and legitimate grievances, thus incentivizing greater political engagement.
I construct my theory and provide an initial test of derived hypotheses by relying on experiences with rural titling programs benefiting small-holder peasant farmers in Peru and Colombia. Land titling differs from traditional land reform policies, in that it attempts merely to formalize the existing tenure regime, and hence does not otherwise impact the distribution of landholding. This provides a unique moment to examine the effect of a change in legal rights that is distinct from changes in underlying assets or benefits. In essence, we can focus specifically on what impact the "right" itself has, while keeping the actual distribution of property relatively constant. In addition to recognizing important rights to land for thousands of peasant farmers, these programs also provided a significant moment of interaction with central state authorities. As a result, titling provides not only a new material connection to the state–in the form of a full, legal title---but also a symbolic connection through the rights and privileges promised in those documents.
I draw on three sources of data to provide empirical support for my theory. First, I provide a historical summary of access to rural land and legal property rights in Peru and Colombia over the 20th and early 21st Centuries, highlighting the importance of legal property rights for shaping rural conflict and claim-making by peasants. The second source of data is from a series of semi-structured interviews with peasant, smallholding farmers in rural areas of Peru and Colombia. Through these interviews, I attempt to understand the meaning peasants place on legal titles, experiences with land titling, and local practices for regulating private land and participating in rural village politics. Third, I use original, panel data of titling through the now-defunct Colombian Institute of Rural Development (INCODER, Instituto Colombiano de Desarrollo Rural) from 2000-2015, and in Peru through the first two waves of massive land titling in the Rural Land Titling and Registration Project (Proyecto de Titulación y Registro de Tierras Rurales, PTRT) from 1996-2007.
I find evidence that changes in legal rights are associated with increases in voter turnout, use of courts, and willingness to engage in politics, but only in areas with weak state institutions. Conversely, in areas with strong state institutions where titling likely increases tenure security, formalized property rights either produce no change or are associated with a reduction in engagement. These findings support my theory that legal rights exert a "symbolic effect" on behavior, which can lead to counter-intuitive results as formal rights promote engagement most where rights are otherwise weak or ineffectively protected.
This evidence highlights the non-material effects of legal rights–an impact that is often overlooked by most political economy scholars who typically understand property rights as synonymous with property tenure (i.e. the expectation of extracting value from property). Instead, I focus on the "right" itself as a moral claim to protection and special consideration by the state. This shift in perspective can broaden our understanding of property rights by explaining how legal rights can influence behavior and convey meaning even when they do not otherwise change material benefits.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Frye, Timothy M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 26, 2019