Land reform has been one of the most transformational public policies of the past two centuries. South Korea provides a classic example of its benefits. Until World War II, the country was impoverished and feudal. The Korean War wreaked havoc on its economy. South Korea then sought to eliminate Japanese colonial influence and shore up its self-sufficiency through radical land reform. The government expropriated all landholdings larger than three hectares, then granted land to poor tenant farmers—many of whom tended small rice paddies—and supported them with favorable agriculture policies.
For the first time in Korean history, these farmers sent their children to school instead of to the fields. Within a generation, the country became urban and well educated, home to a booming economy. Similar transformations followed land reform in Japan and Taiwan. Joe Studwell’s 2014 book, How Asia Works, nails the formula: Cultivate a small farming sector, use the surplus to build export-oriented manufacturing, and nurture these sectors through financial institutions held on a tight leash by the government.
Until recently, land was the single most valuable asset in societies around the globe. People who owned land could harvest its natural resources, such as precious metals, timber, and wild animals. They could also use it to grow crops and raise domesticated animals. And it had enormous symbolic power. Kings, chiefs, and elected political leaders from Versailles to Monticello used their estates to signal status and project authority. Property ownership was used in many societies to determine who could have a say in politics, either through voting or holding office.
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At the dawn of the 19th century, as a consequence of feudalism, tribalism, and colonization, land ownership in most of the world was highly unequal. In many countries, the wealthiest 5 percent of landowners owned 80 to 90 percent of the land. The bulk of rural inhabitants eked out a living working for large landowners, typically through servitude, or rented their land from large landowners at extortionate rates. The only substantial groups that had avoided this fate were some indigenous populations and a small number of town dwellers dedicated to trade or a craft.
Over the following two centuries, land ownership drastically changed. First, population growth put unprecedented demand on access to land. Human beings spread out across continents, tilled over prairies, and felled forests. Growing settler populations displaced indigenous populations at a massive scale and appropriated their lands. In many places, land became scarce.
Societies began land redistribution in response. In the 20th century, more than one-third of the world’s countries seized the holdings of large landowners and redistributed them to the landless or land poor. One and a half billion people directly benefited from such programs, which continue to impact billions more.