Essays on Land Ownership, Institutions and Culture During the American Westward Expansion
Raz, Itzchak Tzachi
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CitationRaz, Itzchak Tzachi. 2020. Essays on Land Ownership, Institutions and Culture During the American Westward Expansion. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe three essays of this dissertation focus on the period of the American Westward expansion. The first essay, co-authored with Ross Mattheis, examines the impact of the 1862 Homestead Act on long-run development. We establish that areas with greater historical exposure to homesteading are poorer and more rural today. The impact on development is not only driven through differences in the urban share of the population; cities in homesteading areas are less developed and non-agricultural sectors are less productive. Studying the path of divergence, we find that homesteading regions were slower to transition out of agriculture. The historical and empirical evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that the transitory distortions caused by the Act’s residency and cultivation requirements induced selection on settlers’ comparative advantage in agriculture. This, in turn, inhibited the development of non-agricultural sectors and the subsequent benefits of agglomeration.
In the second essay, I study the impact of social learning on the formation of close-knit communities. I provide empirical support to the hypothesis, put forth by the historian Fred Shannon in 1945, that local soil heterogeneity limited the ability of American farmers to learn from the experience of their neighbors, and that this contributed to their “traditional individualism.” Consistent with this hypothesis, I establish that historically, U.S. counties with a higher degree of soil-heterogeneity displayed weaker communal ties. I provide evidence on the formation of this pattern, documenting a negative causal impact of soil heterogeneity on the strength of farmers’ communal ties. The impact of soil heterogeneity is long-lasting, still affecting culture and political preference today. These findings suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of culture.
The third essay focuses on the legal doctrine known as “Adverse Possession,” which limits the security of property rights by transferring formal land titles from absentee owners who leave their land idle to adverse possessors that use the land. I exploit historical changes in adverse possession legislation in U.S. states between 1840-1920 to investigate the causal effects of the security of land titles. I find that a reduction in the security of titles increased agricultural output. The main channel is incentivizing higher land utilization. A reduction in the security of land rights is also associated with an increase of investment in farms and improved access to capital markets, as well as with an increase in the share of owner-cultivated farms and mid-size farms. These findings suggest that the effect of property rights on economic development is not monotonic, and that property rights may be over secure.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365736
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