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Surveying America: A Plan for Growth

Latin America has repeatedly failed to achieve the kind of settled distribution of property that could support a middle-class society.  This is a disjunction of subtle but increasing cultural importance as the United States becomes more of a Latin country.  With Jeb Bush running for the 2016 Republican nomination based in part on his ties to Latin America, it’s worth considering some of the more arcane history of why Anglo America and Iberian America diverged so sharply.

While trying to explain Latin American underdevelopment in 1912, American journalist Albert Edwards pointed out that a system designed for conquistadors ill served modern capitalists, who are emboldened by trustworthy land titles: “Frequently the original land grants read ‘from the sea back to the mountains.’  When the hinterland had no value this was a satisfactory description, but it is now a fruitful source of dispute.  Very few landholders know definitely how much they own.”  Recognizing the problems caused by massive land grants, the newly independent government of Mexico limited them to 11 leagues, or about 75 square miles.

Still, as late as 1845, almost the entire San Fernando Valley, 183 square miles (where I and about 1.5 million other people now live), was sold by Pío Pico, the last governor of Alta California, to his son-in-law.  The Valley is small, though, compared with the...

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