Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Does Land Reform = Socialism?

Some of the bloggers I've been reading from Bolivia say that the coverage from Reuters on the situation there has been reasonably balanced. Overall I suppose they're not doing a bad job by not making the expulsion of the American ambassador the only or the most crucial news.

However, it's annoying that most mainstream news sources see the need to mention Bolivia's 'leftist' or 'socialist' government, about four times more than they describe the regional governors as 'rightist'. And nowhere in the international media can we find any mention that the Union Juvenil CruceƱista, the Santa Cruz 'youth organisation' involved in the attacks on national government property, is described by independent parties as a neo-fascist group.

The article I linked to also contains subtle dog whistles such as describing Brazilian president Luiz Ignacio 'Lula da Silva as a 'moderate leftist' (with the implication that Evo Morales and the Bolivian government are 'extreme'?).

One throwaway phrase describes Evo Morales as advocating 'deeply socialist policies such as land reform'. This refers to Morales' aim to redistribute idle land from farms larger than 10,000 hectares to poor landless peasants. The paper I previously linked to from Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval makes the case for why such reform might be needed; Bolivia has close to the most concentrated land ownership in the world.

But regardless of arguments about inequality, is it true that land reform is 'deeply socialist'?

Land reform was indeed a key policy of socialist governments in Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua. But breaking up estates and redistributing land has a long history in many countries, and has been carried out by administrations across the political spectrum, including nationalist military administrations in South Korea, Taiwan and Peru.

In fact, in a number of places land reform has been seen as a key step in capitalist development. There is evidence, argued by Amartya Sen and others, that small farms are more efficient, at least in the developing world. Small farmers need less incentive to become more productive compared to landlords with large holdings. The surplus generated by argiculture can be used for investment in industrial development. The distribution of land also equalises income and creates a larger internal market for the rest of the economy, further stimulating industry.

Renowned Latin America scholar Cristobal Kay argues that the comprehensive agrarian reforms, in South Korea and Taiwan, and agriculture's synergistic relationship with industry, were key reasons for the startling success of industrial development in those countries, while the half-hearted reforms in Latin America were too late and limited to have a similar effect (and in the case of Chile and Guatemala were almost entirely reversed).

We also shouldn't forget our part of the world, where in New Zealand the first Liberal goverment broke up large estates and distributed property to smallholders in the nineteenth century, and land reform began in Victoria from about 1860. These early reforms were instrumental in New Zealand and Australia becoming the relatively egalitarian countries of today rather than ending up more like Argentina.

It's worth drawing a comparison between Bolivia, and another land reform that is currently being pushed by a Latin American government that no one would accuse of being socialist. In Peru, Alan Garcia has argued stridently that large areas of communal land in the sierra and jungle regions are 'idle' and should be 'put into value' by being sold to investors.

Taking advantage of its powers to issue decrees granted by Congress to 'ready' the country for the implementation of the FTA with the US, the Peruvian government decreed that communal land in the sierra and jungle regions could be alienated if 50% of the community voted in favour. This sparked such vehement protests that Peru's usually-supine congress drafted a draw to repeal these provisions.

Like Evo Morales, Alan Garcia and his government are also pushing for the redistribution of land, only into fewer hands rather than more. He has described those who oppose such moves as 'dogs in the manger' for holding back the more intensive exploitation promised by outside investment in agribusiness, forestry and petroleum.

But if this is the description applied to impoverished communities in the sierra and jungle resisting the loss of what little they have, what should we then say about the rich landlords of Santa Cruz?

1 comment:

terence said...

Excellent post Simon. There are plenty of non-socialist economists (Hernando de Soto, Daron Acemoglu...) who would argue for critical role of property rights in development and, if they were to be logically consistent, this would mean property rights for the majority of the population, not just the oligarchs.