Property Formation, Labor Repression, and State Capacity

The creation of individual and absolute ownership is a fundamental aspect of modern statecraft. Local traditional elites in Western nations have opposed the introduction of freehold tenure and cadastral mapping out of fear of losing autonomy from the state, leading rulers to initiate long-term campaigns to impose these schemes. But in much of the postcolonial world, where bureaucratic capabilities are low, the support of nonruling classes to reforms in land tenure was deemed crucial.

How do policymakers specify property rights in contexts of limited administrative capacity? And why do local elites support state-backed land tenure systems that allegedly disempower them? I contend that the erosion of forced labor relations can prompt the implementation of individual property rights in places where rulers lack the infrastructural wherewithal to do so. A shock to the labor repressive power of local elites can spur mobility and induce shortages as free workers can claim de facto property rights. This leads local elites and rulers to bargain for a property order that curbs elites’ preexisting control of land resources while denying property rights to free workers, thus provoking tenure insecurity and reducing alternatives to rural employment.

I evaluate this theory using a novel dataset on land formalization, labor markets, and parliamentary voting from Imperial Brazil (1822-1889) collected over ten months of archival work. I study how a slaveholding planter class endorsed the Land Law of 1850—Brazil’s first property law—as a response to a British ban on the Atlantic slave trade. This legislation made purchase the only means by which land could be alienated and subsidized the transportation of immigrant workers to replace slaves. I show that landowners in parishes with a greater slave population were more likely to comply with the Land Law by voluntarily regularizing their landholdings as private freeholds. Regularization involved taxation and barriers to encroachment but delivered the logistical resources (e.g., revenue and geographic information on plantations) the imperial government needed to finance immigration. I also show that parliamentarians who were slaveowners were more likely to vote in favor of the Land Law. They agreed to renounce customary privileges from the colonial era and transfer the specification of property rights to the imperial state to facilitate the advent of cheap wage labor.

My dissertation shows that property formation in weak states like Brazil or Australia was the result of a co-production effort between local and central interests and not of unilateral state action. Moreover, it has implications for understanding the emergence of property rights in abundant resources—thus challenging an important assumption of neoclassical political economy—and the microfoundations of inequality.