An Idea for Afghanistan: The Ownership Society Principle

How do you turn a rebellious liberal into a risk-averse conservative?

Easy. Give him something to lose — like a house — and just wait.

This ideology, with its deeply conservative private-before-public prescription for social tranquility, has been an important one over the last several decades in Western democracies. And while the fallout from the housing crisis will leave us debating the merit of specific pro-home-ownership policies for a while, perhaps the legacy of this relatively simple observation about human nature need not be limited to already-rich countries.

Instead, maybe it makes sense to export this idea, known as “the Ownership Society” principle, to far-away Afghanistan with its myriad security challenges and political instability.

This type of suggestion is easy to criticize: Why spend money to put people in permanently-owned homes instead of rented property when that money is so desperately needed elsewhere? In response, I’d suggest that the dire situation of Afghanistan dictates that anything we do which improves the security situation is ultimately worthwhile.

Time and again we hear that while the Afghan population is not pro-Taliban, allied forces constantly fight against an enemy that blends in with the civilian population. If the insurgents are broadly unpopular, but the public is not sufficiently vigilant in opposition to hamper their operations, maybe we can make them so by just giving them something to lose, something privately owned.

As an Afghan or as an American, if you see someone suspicious poking around, threatening to bring chaos into your neighborhood, all else equal, don’t you care a bit more if you’re a home-owner than a renting tenant?

Perhaps building a bunch of cheap modular homes and giving them away can effectively turn the Afghan public into part-time contractors for allied intelligence operations. If it works, in a sense it’s nothing more than an accounting trick — the flows of goods and labor are as though we’ve hired them and placed our trust in the Afghan people by paying them ahead of time.

If we consider such an endeavor alongside other parts of the economic development program, the case gets better. For home-building, it seems that the worst-case scenario is that the security situation is not improved, our money is lost, and we just ended up making a giant charitable donation to the people of Afghanistan that will pay political dividends for generations. If we design and build the homes ourselves, it’s hard to imagine how they could be effectively used to make our security mission harder. The potential downside to ideas involving the transfer of more liquid assets is much worse, especially if those assets must traverse the bureaucracy of a corrupt national government. Even if other plans, like providing money to buy farm equipment, seem logically likely to lead to more sustainable economic growth, insofar as they don’t address the fundamental problems of security and stability, they may not be the most effective way to pursue our broader goals in the region.

Plus, what else are we going to do with our glut of excess home-building capacity? Considering the multipliers at play in American manufacturing communities and the severity of the recent downturn in residential construction, if implemented appropriately, such a program could almost qualify as economic stimulus.

Economic conservatives like to say that a rising tide lifts all boats. If we were to fund a wave of private economic empowerment in Afghanistan by building cheap homes for its citizens, it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t lead to improved security and stability one way or another.

Parthiban Santhanam is a graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.