The Economic History Review

Theft under Stalin: a property rights analysis

Volume 69 Issue 1
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Pages: 288-313Authors: Yoram Gorlizki
Published online: July 15, 2015DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12121

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Recent work on dictatorship has focused on how repression is used by dictators to eradicate political opposition. This article examines evidence from one of the most important dictatorships of the twentieth century to suggest that this may tell only half the story. As Stalin’s dictatorship progressed, repression was increasingly administered neither by the secret police nor the military–as in most dictatorships–but through the ordinary courts. The article proposes an explanation, one broadly consistent with Olson’s hypothesis that Stalin was a ‘proprietary dictator’, an autocrat with a long time horizon who made major investments in public goods. Stalin’s new form of property–‘socialist property’–was one such public good. To legitimize the new form of ownership, Stalin ruled that it should be enforced through the ordinary justice system, albeit initially with high levels of repression. The article also makes two further contributions. It shows, first, how Stalin’s theft campaigns are a striking historical example of what happens when an unpopular law clashes with social norms, and of how it might backfire. Second, it demonstrates how, as property rights theorists would predict, the main objects of theft legislation are generic or homogeneous goods with few property attributes.