The unintended consequences of insurgency (and what this tells us about politics in time)

This study exploits within-state variation in drought severity to identify how insurgency during the Mexican Revolution, a major early 20th century armed con ict, impacted subsequent government policies and long-run economic development.

…the study documents that municipalities experiencing severe drought just prior to the Revolution were substantially more likely to have insurgent activity than municipalities where drought was less severe.

Many insurgents demanded land reform, and following the Revolution, Mexico redistributed over half of its surface area in the form of ejidos: farms comprised of individual and communal plots that were granted to a group of petitioners. Rights to ejido plots were non-transferable, renting plots was prohibited, and many decisions about the use of ejido lands had to be countersigned by politicians.

Instrumental variables estimates show that municipalities with revolutionary insurgency had 22 percentage points more of their surface area redistributed as ejidos. Today, insurgent municipalities are 20 percentage points more agricultural and 6 percentage points less industrial.

Incomes in insurgent municipalities are lower and alternations between political parties for the mayorship have been substantially less common. Overall, the results support a view of history in which relatively modest events can have highly nonlinear and persistent in uences, depending on the broader societal circumstances.

A new paper by Melissa Dell.

From the standpoint of the economics of conflict literature, what makes this paper creative is that Dell doesn’t stop at the “shocks lead to conflict” finding, which is commonplace, but uses the variation in conflict created by shocks to understand something bigger.

It’s so well done that you can lose sight of the fact that, on some level, this is a paper about a very peculiar policy response to a peculiar insurgency. The analysis will be extremely important to someone interested in Mexican development patterns, but it’s not clear that we can learn anything about the world outside Mexico.

There’s the genius of the paper, though. Most papers that show “history matters” try to convince us of some general theory of development from their very specific case study. We like our papers to tell us that the world is systematic and the forces of development are deterministic.

Judging by the paucity of papers that say so, however, we don’t like to hear that the world is complex and (sometimes) behaves in ways almost impossible to predict. Historians are more comfortable with the idea of “critical junctures”, and events that spin societies off in one direction or another.

When you’re dealing with highly persistent things like the organization of land, or institutions, these junctures and random events can have far reaching consequences. Economists don’t often read Berkeley’s Paul Pierson on Politics in Time, but this is the standard political science source. Highly recommended.