This chapter develops a theory of land reform in several steps. First, it outlines the political process of land reform. It then details how the chief political actors interact within this process to either push for or block land reform. Finally, it formalizes the logic in a game theoretic model that captures the dynamic decision making of key actors and demonstrates how changes in key parameters impact redistributive land reform outcomes.
The discussion shows that large-scale changes in redistributive policy such as land redistribution are more difficult to achieve when there are more institutional constraints to political rule. The opposition of a small number of institutional actors can jeopardize reform: if the executive opposes reform, the legislature cuts off funding, or the bureaucracy is corrupt or unorganized, redistributive land reform efforts will fall flat. Because land redistribution requires significant political concentration and administrative capacity, it is more likely to occur under autocratic rule. Only when democracy is highly majoritarian – a rare circumstance – can democratic political elites implement land redistribution.
That the structural conditions for land redistribution are more propitious under autocracy, however, does not imply that reform is deterministic under these regimes. Landed elites may wield considerable political power. For land redistribution to be implemented on a large scale, there must therefore be a coalitional split between ruling political elites and landed elites that spurs ruling political elites to attack the foundations of landed elite power.
Destroying landed elites can reduce the potential threat they pose to ruling political elites over the longer term if their interests are not satisfied or if they fear the intentions of political elites. It also signals the ruling political elite's reliance on their support coalition – the group that brings them into power – instead of on landed elites, thereby reducing the threat of an insider coup. Granting land from former landed elites to the rural poor can then undercut the threat of instability from below by buying the support of key groups of the population that have the capacity to organize anti-regime resistance. These political origins of redistribution captured by the theory therefore provide an explanation for the targets and the beneficiaries of land redistribution.
What are the political conditions under which land reform occurs? When is land reform redistributive, and what political purposes does it serve? Who are the chief beneficiaries of reform? And what place, if any, does land reform have in today's world?
Land reform dates back at least to the time of Solon and Pisistratus in sixth-century BC Greece. Distributional questions related to land use and ownership were at the heart of the French Revolution, the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, and countless long-standing social movements in the developing world. And land reform continues in the present day in countries such as Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, and Venezuela. US President John F. Kennedy encapsulated the imperative of land reform in the Americas when he announced the 1961 Alliance for Progress, highlighting the need for countries to “improve the productivity and use of their land, wipe out disease, attack archaic tax and land tenure structures, provide educational opportunities, and offer a broad range of projects designed to make the benefits of increasing abundance available to all.”
The answers that I provide to these important questions depart from much of the common wisdom about the rural sector that political scientists, economists, and sociologists hold dear. First and foremost is the observation that the most redistributive variety of land reform occurs under autocratic rule, not under democracy. Indeed, the spread of democracy has undermined land redistribution and left many disregarded rural populations cast adrift. This implies a second novel observation: in spite of the conclusions of influential scholars such as Barrington Moore and Alexander Gerschenkron, democracy has rarely been threatening to landowners. Indeed, democracy has not infrequently been a friend and savior of large landowners. Although democracy does not forestall all types of land reform, it tables land redistribution – the greatest threat to landed elites. Third, the focus on popular mobilization and the perception that mobilization drives redistribution is at least partly misplaced. Intra-elite conflict and institutional constraints to rule largely determine where and when redistributive land reform occurs. Popular mobilization only rarely yields land redistribution directly; much more frequently, it directs the scope and targeting of redistribution once an opening for redistribution has been created.
The theory and propositions in Chapter 3 anticipate land redistribution when two key circumstances are met: a coalitional split between ruling political elites and landed elites and low institutional barriers to reform. Rural pressure should also increase the likelihood of land redistribution. This chapter employs the data and coding scheme developed in Chapter 4 to empirically test this argument.
Land redistribution first requires a significant coalitional split between landed elites and ruling political elites. Ruling political elites will be motivated to target landed elites for redistribution when there is low coalitional overlap between these groups. The political elite's expropriation of landed elites in this case can preserve their ability to act independently in the future by eliminating powerful, potentially threatening rivals. The political elite's support coalition, which may harbor uncertainty about the intentions of the political elite, also benefits from this policy when its members are distinct from the landed elite. Redistribution away from current landed elites – even if land is not redistributed to the support coalition itself – reveals that ruling political elites favor the political support of the coalition that brought them to office over the support of landed elites. A political elite that fails to redistribute in these circumstances will therefore either be ousted or voted out by its support coalition, or it will pay steep costs to insulate itself from an internal coup. Conversely, political elites have few incentives to redistribute land when their coalition contains landed elites. Doing so would risk their political fate by upending the stability of their own governing coalition.
A coalitional divergence between ruling political elites and landed elites, however, is insufficient to yield land redistribution. Institutional constraints to policymaking must also be low enough to enable political elites to act decisively. Land reform efforts often fail when the executive opposes reform, the legislature cuts off funding, the bureaucracy is captured by landed elites, or the judiciary strikes down the constitutionality of property redistribution. Lower institutional constraints therefore increase the likelihood that land redistribution can be successfully implemented when the interests of political elites and landed elites diverge. This is most typically found under autocracy. Among democracies, majoritarian forms of democracy with fewer veto points face fewer institutional constraints to redistribution and therefore are more likely to redistribute than democracies that are characterized by heavy checks and balances.
Despite rapid rates of urbanization and development, just less than half of the world's population still lives in the rural sector. Most of these individuals dedicate themselves to agriculture. Those that already own land work feverishly to retain and exploit it. Yet many of them wake up every day dreaming to own a plot of land that they can farm to feed their family, to insure themselves against capital or employment losses, and to have the freedom to allocate their labor as they wish.
This book seeks to explain why governments sometimes choose to allocate land to these rural laborers and at other times guard the privileges of large landowners. In doing so, it marshals a century of evidence spanning from broad cross-country trends to micro-level details about the machinations of elites.
I draw several important conclusions. First, the most redistributive type of land reform is implemented when there is a coalitional split between ruling political elites and landed elites alongside low institutional constraints. Land redistribution of this variety makes waves. With sufficient scope, it has the power to decimate landed elites and create a new class of smallholding peasants. These reforms can be eroded or transformed by subsequent governments in ways that hang peasants out to dry, but they can never be entirely rolled back. The autocratic or majoritarian democratic governments that implement them are thus critical players in a country's long-term political and economic development. Popular rural pressure can ratchet up the scope of land redistribution but only when the political conditions are ripe for redistribution in the first place.
Given the overwhelming strength of this finding, it is surprising that landowners seemingly so often feared democratic transitions, as Barrington Moore, Alexander Gerschenkron, and others have long noted. Large landowners in countries that democratized in the late twentieth century, such as Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, the Philippines, and South Africa, have not only avoided being soaked by the masses; they have thrived. Perhaps landowners in these countries were not as sanguine as they should have been about their capacity to act as cogs in the wheel of land reform efforts under democracy.
Chapter 5 provides broad confirmatory evidence for the theory linking elite splits and institutional constraints to rule to land redistribution using large statistical tests at the country level. Chapters 6 and 7 focus on Peru and Venezuela and take a different, but complementary, approach. Each chapter first begins by examining whether the timing and type of land reform corresponds with the theoretical predictions from Chapter 3. But the principal aims of these chapters are to probe the theory's causal mechanisms and to test observable implications, thereby demonstrating the internal validity of the theory. In addition, these chapters show the usefulness of the theory in generating an understanding of the spatial and temporal variation in land reform within countries.
The conditions under which land reform occurred in Peru and Venezuela, along with the subnational data I employ to analyze these programs, also help develop further observable implications of the theory and illuminate the relevance of the land reform typology outlined in Chapter 4. Land reform in Peru occurred mainly as land redistribution under military rule. Land reform in Venezuela took place largely through land negotiation and land colonization under democracy, and then more recently under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro as land redistribution under an increasingly autocratic regime. The Peru case demonstrates social differentiation in the peasant groups that received land through the military's land redistribution program from 1968 to 1980. This sheds light on the organizational capacity necessary for members of the rural poor to become land reform beneficiaries. The Venezuela case provides further insights into the logic of land negotiation and land colonization and how these programs are structured to become politically popular under democracy even though they are less redistributive than land redistribution programs.
CASE SELECTION FOR SUBNATIONAL ANALYSES
Several reasons support the decision to examine Peru and Venezuela in greater detail. First, both countries varied substantially over time in elite splits and institutional constraints, which enables careful tracing of the causal mechanisms driving land redistribution. The variation in elite splits provides a chance to investigate in depth the coalitional dynamics between ruling political elites and landed elites and how and why key insiders of the political elite's initial support coalition push for land redistribution policies when there is a split from landed elites.
This chapter moves away from Latin America to examine land reform in other regions of the world. The principal task is to investigate whether the main theoretical argument linking elite splits and institutional constraints to land redistribution holds beyond the specific geographical context of Latin America. I explore this point in three interlocking steps. Chapter 9 takes up alternatives to land redistribution in the form of land negotiation and land colonization.
First, I introduce an original and complete account of all cases of redistributive land reform that have occurred outside of Latin America since 1900 as well as the conditions under which these reforms have occurred. Redistributive land reform is far from limited to Latin America. There have been fifty-four episodes of land redistribution across forty-five countries outside of Latin America since 1900, spanning every region of the world. Including Latin America, more than one-third of all the countries in the world experienced redistributive land reform in the last century. Many more have implemented large-scale programs of land colonization and land negotiation. Still others – perhaps most notably France – delved into reform prior to the last century. The episodes of land redistribution outside of Latin America in the last century alone have resulted in the redistribution of hundreds of millions of hectares of land to hundreds of millions of rural inhabitants. The political determinants of these reforms largely mirror those that have been found in the context of Latin America to be most conducive to reform: a coalitional split between ruling political elites and landed elites alongside low institutional constraints to rule. More than 80 percent of redistributive land reforms beyond Latin America have occurred under these circumstances. Those that have not, typically as a result of higher institutional constraints, are overwhelmingly minor reforms.
A simple accounting of the cases and conditions of land redistribution, although suggestive, is nonetheless subject to potential bias due to selection on the dependent variable. I therefore double down on this exercise and conduct a global statistical analysis on this panel dataset of land redistribution since 1900. I find strong evidence in support of the theory that land redistribution occurs most frequently when there are both coalitional splits between ruling political elites and landed elites and low institutional constraints to rule.
This chapter begins laying the foundation for a theory of land reform. I first define the main political actors that impact reform outcomes: landed elites, ruling political elites, and the rural poor. I detail how these actors are constituted and what their preferences are. Although I focus on these actors in the Latin American context, their relevance is far from limited to this region. I consequently provide extensions regarding how to conceive of them in other contexts.
This chapter also examines in depth the origins of splits between landed and ruling political elites. While much of the current general theory on redistribution collapses elites into one monolithic actor, I argue that splits among elites are crucial for providing the incentives for land redistribution. Furthermore, elite splits are far from uncommon. I demonstrate that a range of circumstances can give rise to splits between landed elites and ruling political elites: drives for state autonomy (especially by the military or by secularizing and developmentally oriented political elites), a diversifying economy, ethnic difference, and foreign occupation. Recognizing these splits brings us closer to explaining observed patterns of redistribution. And theorizing where elite splits originate is a major step toward understanding the deeper political origins of redistribution.
Landed Elites, Ruling Political Elites, and the Rural Poor in Latin America
From the time of colonization until the early twentieth century, most Latin American countries were characterized by extreme social and economic inequality rooted in the skewed distribution and use of land. More than half of the population in Latin America was rural until 1960. Yet the vast majority of rural laborers were poor. The poorest half of rural workers in most countries throughout the region typically held less than 5 percent of the land. Landed elites, by contrast, were very powerful. The richest 2–3 percent of large landowners typically commanded ownership of most of a country's land. Landed elites also used their authority to influence the behavior and even the movement of the rural workers who lived on their estates (Baland and Robinson 2008; Barraclough 1973). Against this backdrop, there was also a turbulent political environment. Frequent political transitions in many countries brought to power political elites with widely divergent coalitions and agendas.
One of the main practical challenges to understanding the politics of land reform is to gain an understanding of broad patterns of land reform over time. What precisely constitutes land reform? Have land reform policies changed over time and, if so, how? Where and when has land reform been implemented most intensely, and what consequences has it had?
There is a large body of literature on land reform that provides useful guidance regarding these questions. In addition to a host of case studies of land reform, there are a number of insightful compilations of reform analyses (e.g., Barraclough 1973; Binswanger-Mkhize, Bourguignon, and van den Brink 2009; Dorner 1992; Rosset, Patel, and Courville 2006; Thiesenhusen 1989). There is also a vein of research that attempts to make sense of the broad patterns of land reform as well as its efficacy in addressing a range of social issues such as poverty, inequality, and social inclusion (e.g., El-Ghonemy 2002; Herring 1983; Huntington 1968; Lapp 2004; Lipton 2009; Tai 1974; Thiesenhusen 1995; Tuma 1965).
The conclusions drawn from these studies are nearly as varied and numerous as the studies themselves. Some find that land reform has a largely successful record (Lipton 2009), whereas others lament its failures (Thiesenhusen 1995). Those that seek to explain the incidence and timing of reform conclude that land reform is most likely to occur under democracy as a consequence of political competition over rural votes (Lapp 2004), when single or hegemonic party structures dominate politics (Huntington 1968), or when “non-competitive” political systems with centralized power can overrun the resistance of landed interests (Tai 1974).
The widely varying findings on land reform in existing research are largely the result of differences in research design, data, and spatial and temporal scope. Many compilations of land reform select their cases based on the dependent variable, focusing on cases of significant reform at the expense of understanding why reforms took place in that set of cases in the first place. And although many of the case studies and works with broader scope provide key insights into land policies in selected states, it is hard to draw broader conclusions from them.
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