Notice & Comment

Vasily Maklakov on Land Reform and Administrative Overreach, by Stephen F. Williams

The following post is from guest blogger Stephen F. Williams, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

My thanks to Professor Halabi for his thoughtful and discerning review.  I can only hope that reviews published in the wider world will share those qualities.

But as a purpose of the blog format (with which I can claim little experience) is to stir up intellectual fizz, I would like to add a bit of nuance on a couple of issues he raises.  I think it is probably no coincidence that the realms involved are ones where I gave Maklakov comparatively low grades: agricultural reform, on which I found him to have missed valuable opportunities to elevate the level of debate, and Russia’s foreign policy in the build-up to World War One, on which I found his interventions ill-conceived and dangerous.  I’ll address agricultural policy here, and tomorrow if possible, and afterwards Russian geopolitics.

Professor Halabi quotes me as observing that Maklakov “hadn’t much to say on” the issue of peasant property rights, and mentions one of the two explanations that I offered—that he had no firm position on it himself.  But I think the primary driver of his comparative silence was the other explanation, his “disagreement with his party” on the issue.  His party colleagues, the Constitutional Democrats or “Kadets,” were vehemently opposed to Prime Minister Stolypin’s effort to strengthen peasants’ interests in their land, which Stolypin hoped would enhance productivity (by providing better incentives and lower transactions costs [my words, not Stolypin’s]) and, more important, give them a stake in society, turning them, he thought, into the sort of traditionally conservative farmer class familiar in Western Europe.  And Maklakov’s party allies were equally ardently in favor of an alternative, which the regime despised.   Their solution was to confiscate virtually all non-peasant-owned land (for some compensation, not to be market value, but calculated by some measure the Kadets never disclosed) and deliver it to the peasants (not as true property rights, but as mere use rights, subject to continual bureaucratic redistribution).   The Kadets and the government were oil and water on these issues, each zealously favoring its remedy and anathematizing the other’s.  Various statements of Maklakov strongly suggest that on balance his preference lay with Stolypin’s remedies

Although Maklakov criticized Stolypin’s reform in 1910, the critique was rather narrow—addressed to a feature (an important feature, to be sure, if Stolypin was to achieve his goals), but far from the root-and-branch attack continually pressed by the Kadets.  He drew attention to the way the 1910 version of Stolypin’s law gave the father of a family full authority over the family’s land (or what had hitherto been considered the family’s land) and thus the power to indirectly deprive his children of any rights in the land.  Of course that only made the family’s land rights quite similar to those in much of the western world, certainly the English-speaking portion of it.  A lawyer of Maklakov’s intelligence could have proposed compromises that at least for a transitional period would have somewhat protected offspring with modest injury to Stolypin’s purposes.

A more important problem with the Stolypin reforms was that at the outset their implementation was largely in the hands of the “land captains,” a set of officials working under the aegis of the ministry of internal affairs, a ministry of broad and largely uninhibited power.  Peasants commonly saw the land captains as the very embodiment of administrative arbitrariness.  Putting them in charge of the reforms thus entangled the reforms with the state’s least welcome face.  Further, at this stage, the land captains played a role in the judiciary, horrifying to those of us who favor separation of powers and diluting whatever solace judicial review might have afforded.

These were key Maklakov subjects: remedies against administrative overreaching and keeping executive officials out of the judiciary.  He could probably have addressed them, and won some improvements, without alienating his Kadet brethren.  On the other hand, perhaps their ardor against the Stolypin reforms was such that they would have frowned on any effort to ameliorate them.  Maklakov should have given it a try.

The good news is that over the years administration shifted out of the ministry of internal affairs and into the ministry of agriculture, whose kinder and gentler hands (along with some other changes) helped reconcile the peasants to the reforms.

Tomorrow, or shortly, I’ll address some other agricultural issues.


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