Legitimizing the State or a Grievance?:

Property Rights and Political Engagement 

Recipient of National Science Foundation DDRIG funding

Runner up, Best Graduate Student Paper, 2018 REPAL Conference (Red de Economía Política de American Latina)


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 study examines whether the formal recognition of a right—in particular, a formal property right to land—affects an individual’s incentives to engage in politics. Theoretically, I argue that formal property rights are powerful symbols that legitimize claim-making and incentivize rights-bearers to engage in politics. How- ever, this impact is conditional on the broader institutional environment and whether the state can adequately guarantee rights. I test my theory on rural titling programs targeting small- holder peasant farmers in Peru and Colombia. 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 under circumstances in which property rights are otherwise weak or ineffectively protected.