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 Property Rights
The Tragedy of Land Reform
Minimal Government Thinkers, Inc., Philippines Monday, April 14, 2008

Robin T. Lucas
With rice prices rising, the issue of land reforms has once again emerged on front pages of newspapers. In the Philippines, every president has used land reforms to buy support from the masses. But has such attempts to redistribute land really helped the farmers? Does land reform effectively meet the demands for social justice and productivity growth? Rather than meddling in agriculture, the government should abolish land reforms, writes Robin Lucas in Minimal Government

With the rice crisis and the impending expiration of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, in Philippines, the issue of land reform has once more been thrust into the forefront of news reports. People are now analyzing CARP, and the things that could have been done by the government to improve the lot of farmers who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the program. Comments have been made about the old age of farmers, and the lack of interest of the younger generation to take up the profession of their fathers. What could save us from all these problems?


The answer is simple: Abandon land reform. That statement is easy for the writer, who has no political career, but it would be disaster for any politician who hopes to remain in power or even be promoted. Every Philippine President since Quezon has used land reform to buy support from the masses, and a lot of rebellions since the Spanish era can be traced to complaints by disenfranchised farmers. People have taken it for granted that land reform, with massive government support, is the solution to the problem of landless farmers and recurrent rice crises.


Social Justice


But what is land reform? Is it not fair to distribute to the farmers the same land that they have tilled for generations? Why should we care about the exploitative landowners? And is it not the duty of the government to help the poor farmers?


The idea behind land reform is that of correcting the great social injustice heaped upon our farmers. For hundreds of years, they have been little more than serfs, tied to the land that they till, generation after generation. Giving them the land will be fair compensation for their sufferings, stretching all the way back to the Spanish era, when they have been taken advantage of by friars, politicians, and other members of the elite. I am not about to dispute nor belittle the suffering of our farmers. Coming from a farming family with a very small plot of land in Tarlac (whose title can be traced to the American period, before any meaningful land reform), I understand the powerful hunger for land that drives farmers to the arms of revolutionaries and politicians. They are given a pittance for their labors, cheated on the prices of their produce, and compelled to burden their descendants with debts just to keep their farms going when everything needed (grain, feed, fertilizer) are given to them by landlords at prices they cannot afford.


But will it be just to give them the land? That after all is the rightful property of the landowners, however monstrous they may be. Is it just to provide a blanket law to affect all landowners whether they were good or bad to their tenants? Cloaking land reform under the banner of social justice violates our democratic process of due process. Current landowners will be punished for crimes that might or might not have been committed by their ancestors. They may or may not be doing the same things to their tenants, but can’t we just punish the erring landowners for practices that violate our labor laws? We are a civilized nation that will not punish someone for being the son of a child rapist simply because he was born into the wrong family, but we meekly accept the verdict imposed on all those who own land without question. The same principle is involved, but somehow the proponents of land reform were able to isolate the agricultural situation from the greater scheme of things.


I’ve heard another argument. The Spanish friars and conquistadors stole the land from our ancestors and compelled them to slave away for the benefit of the landowning class. Since the property is stolen in the first place, then we can get it back from them to serve the cause of justice. This argument is really irritating, because the current legal framework was not in existence then, and therefore all property transfers from parent to child since that time are legal and cannot be declared illegal ex post facto. But we don’t have to nitpick. All land before the time of the Spaniards was more or less communal. So how can anyone own the land, except for the people themselves? The problem is further complicated by the fact that the Republic of the Philippines traces its descent not from the barangay polities that the Spaniards found, but from the Spanish colonial structure. In short, there is no legal nor moral means by which to redress any perceived injustice that happened 500 years ago. It would be as absurd as ejecting every single white American from the United States and giving their land back to the Indians.


The Economies of Scale


If we cannot rationalize land reform through populist and socialist polemics, perhaps land reform could be justified in terms of productivity. After all, small private plots in the Soviet Union managed to supply most of the food needs of that country when their collective agricultural system was lurching from one disastrous harvest to another. It also has the added benefit of equitably distributing the revenues once earned by large estates to the farmers who would get the full profit of their labors.


Whoever thought about this seriously misunderstood the landlord-tenant relationship beyond that of exploiter-exploited of Marxist dialectics. The landlord, however maligned, provides capital, the necessary infrastructure and technology transfer to assure the continued productivity of his land. Most importantly, he provided the interf

Author : Mr Lucas is a writer based in Philippines.
Tags- Find more articles on - food prices | land redistribution | land reforms | land rights | property rights | world agriculture

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