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Property Insecurity

Author: Terra Lawson-Remer, Fellow for Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy
January 1, 2013
Brooklyn Journal of International Law

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I haven't time to tell you what emotions we experience in traversing this half-wild, half-civilized country, in which fifty years ago were to be found numerous and powerful nations who have disappeared from the earth, or who have been pushed back into still more distant forests; a country where are to be seen, rising with prodigious rapidity, new peoples and brilliant cities which pitilessly take the place of the un- happy Indians too feeble to resist them. Half a century ago the name of the Iroquois, of the Mohawks, their tribes, their power filled these regions, and now hardly the memory of them remains. Their majestic forests are falling everyday; civilized nations are established on the ruins . . . .1

A vast and significant body of scholarship, dating back at least to Adam Smith, has long held secure private property rights to be a fundamental prerequisite for trade, labor specialization, efficient investments, credit access, liberty, government accountability, growth-promoting economic policies, functioning markets, and a myriad of other engines of economic development.2

Yet, historically, economic development has often involved the expropriation of land and resources from groups that are marginalized culturally, racially, ethnically, or socio- economically, and the reallocation of these resources into the hands of more politically powerful constituencies with access to the knowledge and capital necessary for efficient investment.3

Reconciling this apparent contradiction requires recognizing that whose property rights are secure matters fundamentally for the political and economic implications of secure property rights.

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