Legibility and External Investment: An Institutional Natural Experiment in Liberia


We address a debate over the effects of private versus customary property rights on external investment. Despite political economists’ claims that external investors favor private property rights, other experts argue that customary systems have enabled large-scale ``land grabs.” We develop a model of external investment under different property rights systems that highlights tradeoffs due to differences in legibility versus the ability to displace tenants. We study a natural experiment in Liberia—a target of new investment. Laws dating to the 19th Century established parallel property rights systems. We exploit this institutional discontinuity and difference-in-differences methods to compare changes in investment in private and customary property rights systems following the Global Food Crisis of 2007-8. We find a more rapid increase where private property rights prevailed; this divergence is related to larger and more active agribusiness concessions. Qualitative study of a palm oil concession extends our quantitative findings.