Can property rights make peace?

If a functioning state is one that monopolizes violence, Liberia is not quite there. More than one former military commander-cum-warlord controls a plantation or mining concession, with (often as not) former fighters working the estate. A government official has not been seen in most of these places in years.

The government could retake these territories, but not without a risk of struggle, and certainly not without finding thousands of former fighters on their hands, all expecting continued employment.

One of the more interesting ideas on the table: hand the territory over, legally. Make de facto control de jure, and turn an illegal enterprise into a legitimate corporation. Then tax it, regulate it, inspect it. Co-opt it, if you will, into the (peaceful) capitalist system. It’s Hernando de Soto’s dream project.

The man making the suggestion (who will remain nameless) is not without experience. Responsible for settling land conflicts between rival ex-military men in a war-torn region of east Africa, he worked with the local government to send out surveyors with stamps and deeds. If you can settle your conflict, they said, you both get a deed. But today only.

99 percent came to a speedy resolution.

The idea of incorporating warlords in Liberia, however, is not without difficulty. It’s likely to improve the welfare of the workers but, ultimately, will they simply be exploited by the same (but now legitimate) boss man?

I saw an interesting parallel in northern Uganda, where rebel commanders who surrendered were given the Labora Farm to run as their own fiefdom. Initially the farm replicated the same exploitative relationships as in the bush, with abducted fighters and “wives” still working for their former commanders. The outcry was predictable, and deserved. Now, though, many of those leaders have been voted or pushed out by the very youth they once dominated.

The key may be to develop a system in the commander’s interest now, but one that confers rights to the workers with the means to accumulate wealth and influence over time. Tricky business.

I’ll be surprised if the government acts on the idea. Of course, if they do, I’ll be on it like a fat kid on a donut.

While they wait to decide, however, the wealth and control of the warlords only increase…