Drs. Jen and Ilia Murtazashvili publish a new book exploring property institutions and political order in Afghanistan

October 5, 2021

Dr. Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili and Dr. Ilia Murtazashvili have recently published Land, the State, and War: Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan with Cambridge University Press, a work that makes a pioneering contribution to one of the most enduring questions in the social sciences — what are the causes of the wealth of nations?

The book, a historical narrative, weaves together an original theory of property rights using secondary literature, fieldwork across thirty villages, and a nationally representative survey to explore how private property institutions develop, how they are maintained, and their relationship to the state and state-building within the context of Afghanistan to shed light on why repeated efforts to establish formal property rights have failed.

“Our book starts by recognizing that property rights are a critical way to improve human security. We were also interested in Hernando de Soto’s view that legal titling – the registration of land through a formal, judicial process – provides an economic answer to terrorism. We contest de Soto’s view in this book. In our view, customary property often provides a more effective framework to reduce vulnerability than legal titling, and the state’s efforts to promote legal titling to reduce terrorism and violence amount to a hollow promise, at best. Rather, what is necessary is to establish first a framework for limited government before investing in formalization of property rights,” Dr. Ilia Murtazashvili says.

The book frames the idea that today’s richest countries tend to have long histories of secure property rights, legal-titling projects do little to improve the economic and political well-being of those in the developing world. In Afghanistan, a predominantly rural society, citizens cannot rely on on the state to enforce their claims to ownership. Instead, they rely on community-based land registration, which has a long and stable history and is often more effective at protecting private property rights than state registration.

In addition to contributing significantly to the literature on Afghanistan, this book makes a valuable contribution to the literature on property rights and state governance from the new institutional economics perspective.

“This book is required reading for anyone committed to the dictum, ‘first do no harm,” says Christopher Coyne, Professor of Economics at George Mason University.