Bureaucratic discretion in policy implementation

Evidence from the Allotment Era

Originally published in Public Choice

From 1887 to 1934, the federal government broke up millions of acres of tribally owned reservation lands and allotted them to individual Native American households. The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ local “Indian agents” oversaw this highly contingent conveyance of property rights. They initially managed the allotted land held in trust, and then later decided when and if to re-title it to fee simple. Building on and going beyond the literature showing that bureaucratic incentives matter greatly for policy implementation, our paper studies empirically to what extent individual agents’ idiosyncratic preferences and discretion shaped this process. We find that individual agents were statistically important drivers of policy implementation, introducing an element of historical randomness into the legacy of allotment, which continues to shape the distribution of land titles on reservations to the present day.

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