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Particularly in developing countries, there is a gap between written law and behavior. Comparative research emphasizes that laws go unenforced due to resource constraints or inadequate control of the bureaucracy. I instead introduce the concept of forbearance, or the intentional and revocable nonenforcement of law, and argue that politicians often withhold sanctions to maximize votes as well as rents. Drawing on tools from price theory and distributive politics, I present several methods to separate situations when politicians are unable versus unwilling to enforce the law. I demonstrate the identification strategies with original data on the enforcement of laws against street vending and squatting in urban Latin America. In contexts of inadequate social policy, politicians use forbearance to mobilize voters and signal their distributive commitments. These illustrations thus suggest the rich, and largely neglected, distributive politics behind apparent institutional weakness.

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Alisha C. Holland is Junior Fellow, Society of Fellows, Harvard University, 78 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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