Property Law and Capitalism
INTERVIEWER: You are trying to do something unusual, which is to get a message out to the people. What exactly are you trying to achieve by holding these symposiums?
HERNANDO DE SOTO: There's a message in my book which is the result of the research and the conclusions my colleagues and I came to as a result of very practical empirical experience in many developing countries throughout the world. The general idea is that there doesn't seem to be a better system in the world than the capitalist system, and it's a very subtle one, too. It's much more sophisticated than what people think. What it has is the ability to pick up the value of people's work. It has the ability to be put on paper, to accumulate, to represent value, and to use it to further additional production.
What we think is that the reason it isn't working in the developing world and the reason it isn't working in former communist nations is not because people are anticapitalist or people are antientrepreneurial, but that the infrastructure of laws that make the carrying of capital possible are simply not in place.
The message here is don't despair; it's worked for the West; it can work for us. We know nothing better. But it's going to involve radical changes, and you being entrepreneurs are going to be the first ones interested in making sure that these changes occur, and they have to do with the legal system. Here's what we have to say about how the existing legal system in the Third World conspires against you, how it doesn't allow you to come in. Be conscious that that's the source of the problems, that it's not the capitalist system, it's not the free markets system, it's not your capacity as an entrepreneur; it's essentially a legal system that doesn't allow you to accumulate capital, to organize value, and to be able to transfer it.
INTERVIEWER: So the system is rigged against poor people?
HERNANDO DE SOTO: What happens is that over the last 11, 12 years, the recipes available in the international market were at the macroeconomic level. Look, free-market entrepreneurialism is possible everywhere. It's a question of having stable money. It's a question of having fiscal equilibrium -- government doesn't spend more than what it gets. And it's a question of making sure that the government isn't the manager of enterprise, so you have to privatize things.
That and a few other adjustments called "structural adjustment." But what we're seeing now is that that's important, but it certainly isn't enough. It isn't even the beginning of the story. Of course you need stable money, and of course to have stable money you need a government that doesn't overspend, and of course you also need a government that isn't involved in enterprise. But you also need, more important than other things, a rule of law that makes a market economy, the interdependence between millions of producers, possible through good contracts, through good administration of justice and through representations in paper that are capable of capturing value, so as to use that value to further additional production, i.e. capital.
The general idea here is that we haven't properly yet understood the capitalist system. It's much more profound, it's much more subtle than we all expected, and it has only partly to do with macroeconomic equilibrium. Most of it has to do with the rule of law, putting in place a system that allows all of us to prosper.
INTERVIEWER: And so far the system hasn't prospered. Why? Why doesn't it work?
HERNANDO DE SOTO: The system hasn't prospered so far because we've dedicated ourselves only to doing the macroeconomic side of the formula: stable money, fiscal equilibrium, and privatization. The majority of the capitalist system the way I understand it is essentially a legal property system. And in most developing countries and former communist nations you do not have a legal property system that can provide a framework for the majority of entrepreneurs. I'm talking about 80 to 90 percent of all the entrepreneurs that exist. As a result of it, you cannot produce wealth.
One of the things that always scares me is that secret little argument, not even intellectual argument, that little prejudice that is not only in the minds of Westerners, but is also in the minds of elites of developing countries and people that take decisions, that the reason the capitalist system doesn't work is because culturally we're not ready for it, whatever the word "culture" means. It may even have racist implications. What we're saying is well, maybe it's true. Maybe the capitalist system does work much better with Protestants and whites. Maybe. But before that, let's take away all these enormous legal obstacles that poor people have to face. Let's take away all the ignorance around law and let's put good law into place and then we'll just see whether it works or it doesn't. We're absolutely convinced it does work because people are actively [conducting] enterprise all over the world. The thing is, they can't make long-term contracts, and because they can't make contracts, they can't obtain credit, and they have no way of constituting a company that can issue shares, therefore they have nothing to sell against investment. That's the reason it doesn't work. I don't think it's cultural at all.
INTERVIEWER: So education isn't going to solve anybody's problem?
HERNANDO DE SOTO: Education is important. Education is important; health is important; religion, beliefs are important; a civil society is important; a good democratic system is important. But there are many developing countries where you do have some kind of a democratic system. There are many of these countries where you've got education. You could even say that in terms of the indigenous needs of the Peruvian nation we've over-invested in education. Why? Because most of the people that we've educated have emigrated to the United States.
So I'm not saying that education is not important, but if you don't have a capital infrastructure that is capable of creating job opportunities and entrepreneurial opportunities as a first source, all that education doesn't help. What we're saying is we've tried education, and it's good that we continue. Health is also extremely impor