Liberalism Against Public Works: State Takings and Infrastructure Trolls in Latin America

Alisha Holland

Princeton University

March 16, 2018 12:00PM Millikan Room, E53-482

Lunch provided.

One the oldest coercive powers of the state is the ability to acquire private property for public purposes. Yet governments vary in their willingness and ease to acquire land through state takings power. For instance, Ecuador never has stopped a highway project due to land issues, while Colombia scrapped or stalled more than half of its planned projects under democracy after it failed to acquire needed land. This paper argues that different historical traditions of liberalism alter the state’s ability to exercise eminent domain and thus extend its territorial reach. On the one hand, liberal rights can build societal support for the use of eminent domain by expanding procedural guarantees. On the other hand, even for socially desirable projects, liberal rights protections in historically weak states can amplify societal opposition. They directly increase the time and costs to assemble land; indirectly empower local actors to advance historical grievances against the state; and motivate infrastructure trolls to take land to extract private rents. I document these dual effects on state legitimacy and societal challengers through case studies of highway projects in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; novel measures of state coercive power based on the linearity of roads relative to surrounding geographic features; and public opinion data on support for eminent domain from across Latin America.