Of the six billion people on earth, two billion try to survive on a few dollars a day. They don’t build businesses—or if they do, they don’t expand them. Unlike people in the United States, Europe, and Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, etc., they don’t lift themselves out of poverty. Why not? What’s the difference between them and us? Hernando de Soto taught me that the biggest difference may be property rights.
I first met de Soto maybe 15 years ago. It was at one of those lunches where people sit around wondering how to end poverty.
I go, but I’m skeptical. There sits de Soto, president of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Peru, and he starts pulling pictures out showing slum dwellings built on top of each other. I wondered what they meant.
As de Soto explained, “These pictures show that roughly 4 billion people in the world actually build their homes and own their businesses outside the legal system. . . . Because of the lack of rule of law [and] the definition of who owns what, and because they don’t have addresses, they can’t get credit [for investment loans].”
They don’t have addresses?
“To get an address, somebody’s got to recognize that that’s where you live. That means . . . you’ve got a mailing address. . . . When you make a deal with someone, you can be identified. But until property is defined by law, people can’t . . . specialize and create wealth. The day they get title [is] the day that the businesses in their homes, the sewing machines, the cotton gins, the car repair shop finally gets recognized. They can start expanding.”
That’s the road to prosperity. But first they need to be recognized by someone in local authority who says, “This is yours.” They need the rule of law. But many places in the developing world barely have law. So enterprising people take a risk. They work a deal with the guy on the first floor, and they build their house on the second floor.
“Probably the guy on the first floor, who had the guts to squat and make a deal with somebody from government who decided to look the other way, has got an invisible property right. It’s not very different from when you Americans started going west, [but] Americans at that time were absolutely conscious of what the rule of law was about,” de Soto said.
Americans marked off property, courts recognized that property, and the people got deeds that meant everyone knew their property was theirs. They could then buy and sell and borrow against it as they saw fit.
This idea of a deed protecting property seems simple, but it’s powerful. Commerce between total strangers wouldn’t happen otherwise. It applies to more than just skyscrapers and factories. It applies to stock markets, which only work because of deed-like paperwork that we trust because we have the rule of law.
Is de Soto saying that if the developing world had the rule of law it could become as rich as we are?
“Oh, yes. Of course. But let me tell you, bringing in the rule of law is no easy thing.”
De Soto says we’ve forgotten what made us prosperous. “But [leaders in the developing world] see that they’re pot-poor relative to your wealth.” They are beginning to grasp the importance of private property.
Let’s hope we haven’t forgotten what they are beginning to learn.