For far too long, calls for redistribution have merely been met with fear-mongering of returns to Soviet Russia or Maoist China, rather than actual intellectual debate. The political right takes the easy way out, evoking pictures of Stalin and the Gulag, whenever the whiff of capitalist criticism can be smelt. When Fukuyama declared the “End of History,” I believe he was right. He was right that the eternal battle between ideologies is over. Capitalism reigns as the reigning paradigm, the established norm, and the uncontested choice
Socialism is defeated … at least in public perception.
I believe this to be a fatal mistake. Whilst I am by no means calling for a complete revolution, a critical examination of alternative systems of the status quo might give us answers about how to improve the world. How would a widespread redistribution of land, especially in postcolonial countries, change the world in which we are living today?
It should be pointed out that this article is a purely intellectual exercise as there is no chance this policy would ever be feasible. If this were to be implemented, severe questions about the existence of property rights would arise, which would carry with them various long-term consequences. Whilst this might hold true this analysis still brings valuable insights into how the status quo could be improved.
The Justice Case
Colonialism was … bad (oh no shit Sherlock). Land, the basis of sustenance, was often the first thing to be stolen. Not only did land hold incredible riches (i.e. natural resources) but it also held deep cultural meaning, taking it away thus took another step in demoralizing the other side.
Colonial empires frequently employed tactics of coercion and intimidation to compel indigenous leaders into signing treaties that were often incomprehensible due to language barriers or intentionally vague language. These treaties resulted in the involuntary surrender of significant land areas to the colonial powers. Having a larger military apparatus, colonial empires also used brute force to seize the land. Once there, colonial empires used different techniques to forcefully remove indigenous peoples from their ancestral land. Using cultural reclassification, the cultural and religious connection to their ancestral lands was reduced, all in the name of improvements and progress. Lastly, economic exploitation was also used to bind locals in systems of servitude through the large-scale use of debt traps, allowing the colonial powers to take control of the territory.
For property rights to be just, as argued by Robert Nozick, certain preconditions have to be met. The starting allocation of resources needs to be just, any transaction of resources from that point on needs to be just as well. Only then is the final distribution also just. When the basis of land allocation is one of brutal oppression and smear, the first premise of the libertarian argument fails to hold. Current allocations are merely a product of bloodshed and slaughter. When current allocations are a product of bloodshed and tyrannical slaughter, don’t we ought to have an obligation to return this to, what Nozick would call, a state of justice?
The Economic Case
Poverty is the most pressing issue that most postcolonial countries face. This is surprising, considering that postcolonial countries, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, possess some of the largest natural resource reserves in the world. The problem is that they are unevenly distributed. The landed gentry, profiting from years of exploitation, live in mansions and gated communities, whilst the rest of the country fights for their survival, every day. Land redistribution would solve this by providing a baseline of survivability. The vast majority would be better off running their own small crop of land than working on that of a big landowner.
The world we live in is one of markets, fluctuating prices and uncertainty. Whilst this does not significantly affect us in the global north, fluctuating prices can be detrimental to local populations who are barely scraping by. A sudden shock in the cost of corn might mean that a family has to go hungry for a week. This is especially likely as many postcolonial countries often suffer from unstable currencies and poor monetary policies, leading to erratic shocks and high inflation. Zimbabwe, for instance, has seen an inflation rate of 24,411% over the last 42 years. When farmers own their own land, and produce their own food, these shocks do not affect them. They care for themself and are not reliant on governing structures that may be unable to care for their needs.
Big farms, the alternative place of employment, also tend to be exploitative. By having a monopoly on local employment opportunities, where a single farm serves as the sole source of jobs, large farm owners possess significant market power, enabling them to exploit the labor force working on their farms. The lack of government oversight and enforcement further allows the landowners, who directly benefited from the colonial structures, to become richer and richer on the backs of the indigenous communities.
Significant differences also exist in the kind of crops that would be produced if the land was distributed between hundreds of subsistence farmers as opposed to a couple of large producers. Whilst large producers can benefit from exporting their goods through connections to the West and large-scale production, small farmers have to focus on feeding their own families first. This means that big producers have an incentive to produce goods that yield the highest return on international markets, such as coffee or cocoa, and not goods that would feed local populations. This clarifies why the cost of basic living is elevated, as all consumer goods must be imported initially, thus exacerbating the already wide spectrum of inequality. The rich line their pockets whilst the stomachs of locals go empty.
Distributing land to more people has further benefits. Possessing land, a tangible and price-stable asset, allows you to take out loans more easily as you have collateral with which you can back your loan. If the bank knows that they are at low risk of losing money, they are much more likely to grant you money with which you could send your children to university or school, or which would allow you to open a business. Land, as a starting point, thus plants the seeds for social mobility.
Nothing in life is ever straightforward, neither is land redistribution (uhuuuuu controversial). Yet, a simple dismissal of the idea as “Marxist” ignores the potentially huge benefits it could bring. Especially in countries with an extensive history of cruelty and exploitation, and large agrarian sectors, the quality of life of most people in society could be vastly improved. Children could be sent to school, and family businesses could be created. Land redistribution would achieve all of this without posing large questions about the rightfulness of the current owners. Land redistribution is a legitimate topic, so let’s discuss it.