Book Project

Forbearance as Redistribution: The Informal Welfare State in Urban Latin America

Why do governments tolerate the violation of their own laws and regulations, and when do they enforce them?  Conventional wisdom is that state weakness erodes enforcement, particularly in the developing world.  In contrast, I highlight the understudied political costs of enforcement.  Governments choose not to enforce state laws and regulations that the poor tend to violate, a behavior that I call forbearance, when it is in their electoral interest.  

I argue that two central factors shape enforcement decisions: first, the economic progressivity of welfare expenditures affects incentives for local politicians to enforce.  When social policies are truncated or absent, forbearance emerges as a credible way for politicians to boost welfare informally and signal their distributive priorities.  Second, political decentralization determines the electoral weight of poor voters.  When elections occur at a local level and poor voters constitute a plurality, politicians are more likely to forbear in line with district preferences.

I develop the argument through a set of comparative case studies of enforcement against two legal violations—squatting and unlicensed street vending—in three Latin American capital cities since 1990.  I draw on an original public opinion survey and experiment, in-depth interviews, administrative records, newspaper archives, and campaign platforms.  Several empirical observations distinguish my theory from dominant alternatives centered on state weakness: 1) the poor support forbearance and candidate who advocate it, 2) politicians block enforcement on electoral grounds even after bureaucrats perform their roles, 3) enforcement choices vary with politicians’ core constituencies, and 4) electoral rules generate predictable enforcement patterns.

The contribution is to show how forbearance can function as an informal welfare policy, and how its use in turn alters the politics of tax-based redistribution in low and middle-income democracies.  Scholars often assume that political divisions form between the Left that favors tax-based redistribution, and the Right that resists it.  My research instead suggests that electoral competition can center on informal welfare policies, particularly in contexts where formal benefits accrue to the middle class.

This book builds on my dissertation, which won the Robert Noxon Toppan prize for the best dissertation on a subject of political science at Harvard University in 2014.  Please contact me for updated versions of the chapters. 

 

Book Project

Forbearance as Redistribution: The Informal Welfare State in Urban Latin America

Why do governments tolerate the violation of their own laws and regulations, and when do they enforce them?  Conventional wisdom is that state weakness erodes enforcement, particularly in the developing world.  In contrast, I highlight the understudied political costs of enforcement.  Governments choose not to enforce state laws and regulations that the poor tend to violate, a behavior that I call forbearance, when it is in their electoral interest.  

I argue that two central factors shape enforcement decisions: first, the economic progressivity of welfare expenditures affects incentives for local politicians to enforce.  When social policies are truncated or absent, forbearance emerges as a credible way for politicians to boost welfare informally and signal their distributive priorities.  Second, political decentralization determines the electoral weight of poor voters.  When elections occur at a local level and poor voters constitute a plurality, politicians are more likely to forbear in line with district preferences.

I develop the argument through a set of comparative case studies of enforcement against two legal violations—squatting and unlicensed street vending—in three Latin American capital cities since 1990.  I draw on an original public opinion survey and experiment, in-depth interviews, administrative records, newspaper archives, and campaign platforms.  Several empirical observations distinguish my theory from dominant alternatives centered on state weakness: 1) the poor support forbearance and candidate who advocate it, 2) politicians block enforcement on electoral grounds even after bureaucrats perform their roles, 3) enforcement choices vary with politicians’ core constituencies, and 4) electoral rules generate predictable enforcement patterns.

The contribution is to show how forbearance can function as an informal welfare policy, and how its use in turn alters the politics of tax-based redistribution in low and middle-income democracies.  Scholars often assume that political divisions form between the Left that favors tax-based redistribution, and the Right that resists it.  My research instead suggests that electoral competition can center on informal welfare policies, particularly in contexts where formal benefits accrue to the middle class.

This book builds on my dissertation, which won the Robert Noxon Toppan prize for the best dissertation on a subject of political science at Harvard University in 2014.  Please contact me for updated versions of the chapters. 

 

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