China's Communist leaders, whose revolution triumphed in 1949 thanks to the support of rebellious peasants, are surely in a position to appreciate the risks of skewed land distribution. The ownership of land by a privileged few is one of the most frequent triggers for rural insurgencies. (And the occupation and expropriation of a vanquished foe's land is a great way to ensure that proper peace will never come -- as Israelis ought to have figured out by now.)
Just to make matters even more complicated, now we have the burgeoning phenomenon of corporations buying up huge tracts of land in poor countries. In Liberia, for example, landless people are protesting big land purchases by palm oil companies from Malaysia and Indonesia. Land, in other words, is no longer a national problem, but increasingly one with a cross-border dimension. Hall points out that even plans for countering climate change ultimately entail compelling people to change their patterns of land use. In practical terms, he says, many policies designed to fight global warming amount to "paying people not to cut down trees on their land."
Policymakers in the developed world need to do a better job of appreciating the importance of this issue. It's possible to imagine many situations where implementing sensible land reform (including a full-fledged system of property rights) could do just as much to secure the future of democracy as election monitoring or advice on constitution-writing. This is a job that's too important to be left up to international financial institutions like the World Bank. It would be good to see individual countries pitching in with solutions, too. Washington, where are you?