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This Ain't Your Father's Economics!
on January 31, 2004
In the past five years I've read a shade under a thousand books, and this is easily the most important of them. In it, Peruvian economist de Soto sets out to do nothing less than explain why capitalism has worked in the West and been more or less a total disaster in the Third World and former Communist states. This has long been a pivotal question for anyone interested in the world beyond their own back yard, and there have been plenty of attempts to explain it before (often in terms of history, geography, culture, race, etc.). However, de Soto's is the most compelling and logically argued answer I've come across. But it's not just me. I don't generally quote other reviews, but my general reaction echoes the most respected policy journals, newspapers, and magazines, who tend to repeat the same words in their reviews:"revolutionary", "provocative", "extraordinary", "convincing", "stunning", "powerful", "thoughtful". Perhaps my favorite line comes from the Toronto Globe and Mail: "De Soto demolishes the entire edifice of postwar development economics, and replaces it with the answers bright young people everywhere have been demanding." Of course readers (especially those on the left) will have to swallow a few basic premises from the very beginning, such as "Capitalism stands alone as the only feasible way to rationally organize a modern economy" and "As all plausible alternatives to capitalism have now evaporated, we are finally in a position to study capital dispassionately and carefully." And most importantly, "Capital is the force that raises the productivity of labor and creates the wealth of nations.... it is the one thing that the poor countries of the world cannot seem to produce for themselves no matter how eagerly their people engage in all the other activities that characterize a capitalist economy." No matter how badly some of us may want to hold on to cherished ideals of collectivist economies, the reality is that at present these are only viable on a micro scale. For the moment, capitalism has won, and the only question is how to make it work to improve the lives of the bulk of the world. De Soto writes: "I do not view capitalism as a credo. Much more important to me are freedom, compassion for the poor, respect for the social contract, and equal opportunity. But for the moment, to achieve those goals, capitalism is the only game in town. It is the only system we know that provides us with the tools required to create massive surplus value."
According to De Soto, the problem outside the West is that while the poor have plenty of assets (land, homes, businesses), these assets lie overwhelmingly in the extralegal, informal realm. De Soto's on the ground research reveals that this is the result of an accelerated process of urbanization and population growth, coupled with the inability of legal systems to adapt to the reality of how people live. What has happened is that throughout the Third World, the costs of making assets legal (obtaining proper title to a house, registering a business, etc.), are so prohibitive both in terms of time and money, that the assets end up being what de Soto calls"dead capital." In the West, a web of financial and legal networks enable people to use their assets to create further wealth, through such tools as mortgages, publicly traded stocks, and the like. Outside the West, most people live and work outside the kind of invisible asset management infrastructure that we take for granted, and thus are unable to use their assets for the "representational purposes" we are able to. Thus the full set of capitalist tools are not available to them and it becomes incredibly hard to realize any kind of upward mobility.
One of the key sections of the book is "The Missing Lessons of U.S. History", in which de Soto demonstrates how the US faced the exact same challenge several hundred years ago. The difference is that the legal system was flexible enough over a century and a half to realign itself with the reality being created on the ground by an energetic citizenry. However, it occurred over the long-term and long ago, and has thus been forgotten by history. What de Soto says needs to be understood is that the less developed nations of today are trying to accomplish the same thing over a much shorter time and with much greater populations, and without a clear understanding of how the West managed to do it. The ultimate challenge is raising the social awareness and political backing necessary to implement major legal change in the face of resistance from an entrenched bureaucracy and elites who benefit from the status quo. This is a daunting and provocative challenge-but not impossible.
Of course, all of the above is greatly simplified, so anyone interested in the state of the world should read it for themselves. De Soto's writing is remarkably clear (especially for an economist), and no background in economics or law is needed to follow his argument. There is a little repetition here and there, but always in the service of making sure the reader doesn't miss the big picture. In the end, whether you agree with his thesis or not, I guarantee it'll challenge your preconceived notions about global capitalism.