I develop a theory to study the determination of land rights in precolonial Vietnam, in which the state uses restrictive land rights to tie landless peasants to their land, in order to collect head taxes and enforce unpaid labor services and military conscription. Using a unique national land registry in nineteenth-century Vietnam, I find suggestive evidence supporting a hypothesis that higher population density is associated with lower prevalence of private land rights. The experience of historical Vietnam stands in contrast to the standard prediction that private land rights should become more widespread when population density increases and land becomes more valuable. A comparison with the enclosure movement in premodern England provides useful lessons on the development of private land rights in an agricultural economy.
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