Today's date:
Winter 2001

Bringing Wealth to the Poor: A Deed for Every Home

Hernando de Soto is the author of The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic Books, New York, 2000). He is also director of the Institute for Liberty and Freedom in Lima, Peru.
Lima-Imagine a country where nobody can identify who owns what, addresses cannot be easily verified, people cannot be made to pay their debts, resources cannot conveniently be turned into money, ownership cannot be divided into shares, descriptions of assets are not standardized and cannot be easily compared, and the rules that govern property vary from neighborhood to neighborhood or even from street to street.

You have just put yourself into the life of a developing country or former Communist nation; more precisely, you have imagined life for 80 percent of its population, which is marked off as sharply from its Westernized elite as black and white South Africans were once separated by apartheid.

This 80 percent majority is not, as Westerners often imagine, desperately impoverished. In spite of their obvious poverty, even those who live under the most grossly unequal regimes possess far more than anybody has ever suspected. Five years ago my research organization (Instituto Libertad y Democracia) and hundreds of professionals from various countries went into the streets of developing and former Communist nations to learn what real people are achieving inside and outside the underground economy.

We closed our books and opened our eyes-and the results of our findings have been dramatic. The data we have collected demonstrate that the world's poor and the lower middle classes have accumulated all the assets needed for successful capitalism. The value of their savings is immense: many times all the foreign aid and investment received since 1945.

In Egypt alone the assets of the poor are 55 times greater than all foreign investment ever recorded, including the funding of the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam. They are at least 20 times larger than the stock exchanges of all these countries put together and over a hundred times bigger than all privatizations carried out in the Third World and former Communist nations over the last 10 years.
Why then are these people so underdeveloped or so poor? Why can't they turn their assets into liquid capital-the kind of capital that generates new wealth by increasing production and productivity? For a very simple reason: to be useful in an expanded market, capital must first be represented according to law in a property document where it can then be assigned a status that allows it to produce additional value.
What most people possess outside the West is not represented (or "paperized") in such a way as to produce capital. When you step onto an airplane in New York to šy to Jakarta, what you are leaving behind is not the high-technology world of fax machines and icemakers, television and antibiotics; many people in the Third World also have them. What you are leaving behind is the world of enforceable legal representations.

Assets outside the West are held in defective forms: houses built on land whose ownership rights are not adequately recorded, unincorporated businesses with undefined liability, industries located where financiers and investors cannot see them. Because the rights to these possessions are not adequately documented, these assets cannot readily be turned into capital, cannot be traded outside of narrow local circles where people know and trust each other, cannot be used as collateral for a loan and cannot be used as a share against an investment.
In the West, by contrast, every parcel of land, every building, every piece of equipment or store of inventories is represented in a property document that is the visible sign of a vast hidden process that connects all these assets to the rest of the economy. Thanks to this representational process, assets can lead an invisible, parallel life alongside their material existence. They can be used as collateral for credit.

Dead Capital | The single most important source of funds for new businesses in the United States is a mortgage on the entrepreneur's house. These assets can also provide a link to the owner's credit history, an accountable address for the collection of debts and taxes, the basis for the creation of reliable and universal public utilities and a foundation for the creation of securities (like mortgage-backed bonds) that can then be rediscounted and sold in secondary markets. By this process the West injects life into assets and makes them generate capital.

Third World and former Communist nations have been unable to give the overwhelming majority of their citizens access to this representational process. As a result, most of them are undercapitalized, in the same way that a firm is undercapitalized when it issues fewer securities than its income and assets would justify. The enterprises of the poor are very much like corporations that cannot issue shares or bonds to obtain new investment and finance. Without representations, their assets are dead capital.

The poor inhabitants of these nations-the overwhelming majority-do have things, but they lack the process to represent their property and create capital. They have houses but not titles; crops but not deeds; businesses but not statutes of incorporation. It is the unavailability of these essential legal representations that explains why people who have adapted every other Western invention, from the paper clip to the nuclear reactor, have not been able to produce sufficient capital to make their domestic capitalism work.

This is the issue I address in my book, The Mystery of Capital. Solving this mystery requires an understanding of why Westerners, by representing assets with titles, are able to see and draw out capital from them.

One of the greatest challenges to the human mind is to comprehend and to gain access to those things we know exist but cannot see. Not everything that is real and useful is tangible and visible. Time, for example, is real, but it can only be efficiently managed when it is represented by a clock or a calendar. Throughout history, human beings have invented representational systems-writing, musical notation, double-entry bookkeeping-to grasp with the mind what human hands could never touch. In the same way, the great practitioners of capitalism, from the creators of integrated title systems and corporate stock to Michael Milken, were able to reveal and extract capital where others saw only junk by devising new ways to represent the invisible potential that is locked up in the assets we accumulate.

The absence of this process in the poorer regions of the world-where five-sixths of humanity lives-is not the consequence of some Western monopolistic conspiracy. It is rather that Westerners take this mechanism so completely for granted that they have lost all awareness of its existence. Although it is huge, nobody sees it, including the Americans, Europeans and Japanese who owe all their wealth to their ability to use it. It is an implicit legal infrastructure hidden deep within their property systems-of which ownership is but the tip of the iceberg.

The rest of the iceberg is an intricate man-made process that can transform assets and labor into capital. This process was not created from a blueprint and is not described in a glossy brochure. Its origins are obscure and its significance buried in the economic subconscious of Western capitalist nations.

The challenge that leaders throughout developing and former Communist nations face, from Vladimir Putin to Thabo M'beki, is to address the fact that most of the citizens they govern do not have property rights. They have to face up to the fact that macroeconomic stabilization programs that their governments have carried out have only performed a fraction of the work required to created a workable capitalist system and a democratic market economy. These programs, which have been implemented over the last 10 to 15 years, have been largely designed to work in countries where systematized property law is accessible to all. This is not the case outside the West where the majority of people live and work in the extralegal sector. The fundamental shortcoming of these macroeconomic programs is that they forgot to focus on the poor.

The time has come to take the issue of the poor away from the charitable agendas of the first ladies of the nation and insert it into the working agenda of the heads of state. The time is ripe-as capitalism falters throughout five-sixths of the world, from Asia to Latin America-to take the subject of property away from the hands of conservative legal establishments uninterested in changing the status quo and put it into the hands of politicians committed to progress.

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