How Emancipation Drives Property Rights: Theory and Evidence from Imperial Brazil

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Local landed elites are expected to oppose private property rights out of fear of losing traditional privileges in land tenure. In this paper, I advance a theory of property rights formation in contexts of low infrastructural power and relative land abundance. I contend that the exogenous abolition of labor-repressive arrangements encourages landed elites to adopt private property rights as a legal means to prevent free rural workers from having access to land and thus reduce the cost of labor. I test this argument in Imperial Brazil, where an external ban on the Altantic slave trade pushed planters to endorse the 1850 Land Law. Using novel archival data, I show that planter parliamentarians were more likely to vote in favor of the new law. I also show that planters in parishes with greater shares of slave population were more likely to voluntarily formalize their plantations as private freeholds to subsidize immigrant labor. Land formalization in turn facilitated the introduction of indentured labor and evictions. These findings reveal how landed elites strategically exploited one of the linchpins of private property to keep labor cheap: the right to exclude others.

Discussant: Andres Guiot-Isaac (Oxford)