Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 June 2020
Theories of the rise of the modern state hold that central rulers make land property “legible” to extract revenue, leading landholders to oppose state registration. This study revises this logic and argues that when land ownership is disputed, landholders use inscription into state records to secure legal property rights. To minimize resulting tax liabilities, propertied interests may exploit opportunities to manipulate land valuations, which determine the tax burden. The argument is substantiated using historical tax and cadastral records from Colombia. Difference-in-differences analyses of two critical attempts at land reform, led by the Liberal Party, show that land property registration spiked disproportionately in threatened Conservative municipalities, where tax revenues lagged behind nonetheless, due to systematic undervaluation of property. The study concludes that landholders’ selective subversion of state building may disrupt the assumed link between legibility and taxation and spawn territorially uneven patterns of state capacity that mirror domestic conflict lines.
Conflict of interest: I, Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer, declare none.