Domestic Conquest: Land Reform and Bounded Rationality in the Middle East
Goldman, Matthew Eugene
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This dissertation examines the rise and fall of projects for land reform - the redistribution of agricultural land from large landowners to those owning little or none - in the Middle East in the mid 20th century, focusing on Egypt, Iraq, Palestine/Israel, Syria, and Turkey. Following the end of World War II, local political elites and foreign advisors alike began to argue that land reform constituted a necessary first rung on the ladder of modernization, a step that would lead to political consolidation, development, industrialization, and even democratization. Unfortunately, many land reform projects resulted in grave disappointments, leading to reduced agricultural output, increased rural poverty, political conflict, and more authoritarian rather than more democratic forms of government. As many policymakers and development experts themselves came to understand, an underlying cause of these problems was their failure to adjust land reform models to account for crucial variations in local political, economic, and ecological conditions. Using a method of similarity approach, this project asks why land reform projects so often sought to apply imported models in vastly different local contexts and then failed to adequately adjust these policy models to suit local realities. Through the examination of texts produced by international land reform advisors and local political elites, including books, parliamentary debates, letters from archival collections, diplomatic correspondence, academic works, and published articles, I trace the decision-making processes that led to the land reform programs and their failures. Drawing on research in cognitive psychology and bounded rationality, I argue that mistakes occurred under the influence of certain cognitive heuristics, i.e., inherent human biases in information processing. Policymakers and policy shapers often chose inappropriate land reform models because their attention was focused on high profile countries’ land reform programs, leading them to downplay differences such as low administrative capacity, relative lack of irrigation water, and threat of soil salinization. Describing an understudied episode in the political, social, and economic development of the postcolonial world, this dissertation offers a new empirical look at the roots of conflict in the Middle East while testing a political psychology argument for recurrent problems in the spread of development projects.