British Journal of Political Science

Research Article

Colonialism, Property Rights and the Modern World Income Distribution

Matthew D. Fails and Jonathan Krieckhaus*


Influential studies by Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson claim that colonial legacies explain the origins of development-promoting property rights and thus account for the modern world income distribution. Specifically, they argue that European colonial powers engineered a global ‘reversal of fortune’, bringing property rights and prosperity to relatively uninhabited colonies while imposing inefficient institutions on locales with less potential for settlement. We re-evaluate their theoretical arguments and empirical findings and come to a different conclusion. We concur that British colonialism dramatically restructured four colonies, resulting in phenomenal economic success. For the majority of the world, however, colonialism had no discernible effect on property rights. We conclude that contemporary development studies must find another explanation for the modern world income distribution.


* Department of Political Science, Oakland University; Department of Political Science, University of Missouri (; A previous version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, 2008. The authors thank James Mahoney, David Albouy, the Editor Hugh Ward, and the Journal’s anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions. They also thank the participants in an informal discussion on colonialism organized by John Gerring and James Mahoney in 2007. Appendix A and Appendix B are available with the Journal’s website version of this article, published by Cambridge University Press, 2010, doi:10.1017/S0007123410000141, as well as on the authors’ personal websites.