Arrunada Seminar: Paul Dower – Centralized vs. Decentralized Allocation
| Paul Dower |
Centralized vs. Decentralized Allocation
In Benito Arruñada’s insightful new book, Institutional Foundations of Impersonal Exchange: Theory and Policy of Contractual Registries, the widespread failure of titling programs in developing countries is used as motivation for a greater appreciation of the role of contractual registries. In many developing countries, immovable assets, especially land, are initially and subsequently allocated using a centralized mechanism as opposed to a decentralized market mechanism implicitly assumed in the book.
The conflict between those holding property and those acquiring property is different under a centralized allocation mechanism. Sara Berry in Chiefs Know Their Boundaries, an interesting work on an agricultural region of Ghana, describes the political process involved in determining the complicated overlapping and competing property claims in a system where land is allocated by a centralized mechanism. Here, the relevant asset is not exactly land but community membership. This asset consists of various rights, one of which entails a kind of social insurance that functions through land allocated based on perceived need. The chief simultaneously serves as the contractual registry, performing public reallocation of rights when necessary, as well as the steward of the community members’ rights in rem, enforceable against all parties. Since need is imperfectly observable, this allocation mechanism suffers from a moral hazard problem, in which the acquiring party has private information putting the holding party at a disadvantage. In this setting, the registry is and can not be independent but it can aim to be impartial.
This example highlights the institutional specialization required for impersonal exchange, a point made well in the book, but it also points to several difficulties not apparent in the analysis. First, the judgment proof problem is more complicated. Power and social status can create a judgment proof problem that is independent or even negatively correlated with the standard one of not having enough wealth to compensate the victim of a violation of rights. The judgment proof problem can create problems for the voluntary registration of property claims. Second, the asset that is transferred or involved in transactions in a centralized system may not easily map into assets exchangeable in a decentralized system. Here, there is a parallel to the informational externality discussed in the book concerning transactions of rights in rem. The lack of institutional specialization leads to significant information costs if rights in rem are transferred. Third, since local legal orders are usually less specialized and serve multiple purposes under a centralized allocation mechanism, they may appear weaker than they actually are. On one hand, the apparent favoritism of a local may merely reflect the fact that an outsider does not have a legitimate claim to rights in rem because the local that transacted with the outsider did not possess rights in rem (even though, as shown above, rights in rem exist and can be transferred). On the other hand, due to the social insurance role of land allocation, the local property holder commonly has a superior claim to land in the abstract than what can be acquired at any moment in time by another local or an outsider. Thus, local legal orders can be in better positions to track the competing or overlapping claims than a public registry based on a state-backed legal order, even though the political process required to adjudicate competing claims under the local legal order restricts trade opportunities.
Kinross Assistant Professor of Development Economics, New Economic School (NES). Research Economist, Center for Financial and Economic Research (CEFIR).