Deliberation about how to foster peace and democracy in Iraq too often ignores this fact: The administration of property rights in Iraq today is arguably weaker than under ancient Mesopotamian rule.
And while we support calls for a minority safe zone in Iraq as a response to the ISIS genocide, military protection alone will not achieve a sustainable peace. Iraq urgently needs the rule of law. It must protect the property rights of its citizens as a first step toward the establishment of a functioning economy and a stable society.
Americanists as exalted as Jefferson and Tocqueville attach great importance to the wide distribution of property ownership as essential to democracy. A key feature of General MacArthur’s pacification and democratization of Japan involved the purchase and wide redistribution of real property. Until then, the vast majority of Japanese farmers rented their land. Establishment and protection of private property rights was fundamental to Japan’s successful democratization. Applying this lesson to post-conflict Iraq would require a reliable system of property survey and title, with the quick and clear resolution of the property disputes left over from the use of property expropriation as a tool of tyranny.
Economist Hernando de Soto has ably demonstrated how secure and predictable title to real property breathes life into dead capital by allowing it to be leveraged as collateral. Living assets attract more capital, feeding the growth needed to give families a reasonable expectation of a better future, and thus a stake in defending the peace necessary to it.
America’s own peace and prosperity owe much to its system of defining, defending, and adjudicating the rights of its citizens to their own land. The inability of the United States to export the institutions that promote and protect its own prosperity proceeds from a lack of appreciation for its own machinery of property rights
Clear title and due process for property disputes are civil rights essential to our own system of administering the right to property, a natural right that our own country owes its success to defending. If Carl Schramm’s proposal of Expeditionary Economics is to enjoy the success we hope for, we must learn how to create the administrative machinery to protect property rights—at least on the very local scale we need to make a safe zone work.
Our foreign policy and foreign aid establishment utterly fails to comprehend the importance of this point. The Coalition Provisional Authority did establish an office to address property disputes, but few were collected and none resolved before an extremist smear campaign led to a rocket attack on the office and--tragically--ended the US/UN commitment to the program.
The same phenomenon explains our collective misunderstanding of the Arab Spring. As de Soto’s teams laboriously documented, the Arab Spring was sparked when Mohamed Bouazizi and dozens of other entrepreneurs killed themselves in grisly protest because their property was being unjustly expropriated, and they were being deprived of “the right to buy and sell.” So addressing the problem of the administration of property rights is important everywhere across an Arab world on fire, but it is especially acute in Iraq, where genocidal tyrants have long used expropriation and displacement as tools of social policy, not merely as the means of theft so widely practiced elsewhere. In other words, if we can secure their property rights, their hearts and minds will follow, not to mention vitally needed economic growth.
One sign of hope on that front is that new technologies are lowering the cost of administering rights to real property, including the use of drones, satellites, and GIS for property surveys, as well as digital tools for recording, transmitting and evaluating the multiple information sources necessary to establish marketable title. Try to imagine the cost in real terms that the ancient Mesopotamians were willing to pay for their system of property rights: Cuneiform tablets were cutting edge technology. They were vastly more expensive and cumbersome than the tools we have available. We must learn to value them enough to find the will to use them.
If the Coalition Against ISIS will overcome its myopia and learn to install highly local systems of property rights and the rule of law to protect budding market economies, including local policing, judging, and due process to provide quick and clear justice, then we are confident that a safe zone along the lines suggested by President Trump will be the right tool to bring sustainable peace back to Iraq, and we hope, eventually, to Syria.
Dr. Hollingshead is an economic development consultant and leads IraqHaven.org. Mr. Pfotenhauer is Vice Chairman of First American Title Insurance Company.
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