Of the 6 billion people on Earth, 2 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 to these things because it bugs me that much of the world hasn't yet figured out what gave us Americans the power to prosper.
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 a got 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 they 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 started his work in Peru, as an economic adviser to the president, trying to establish property rights there. He was successful enough that leaders of 23 countries, including Russia, Libya, Egypt, Honduras, and the Philippines, now pay him to teach them about property rights. Those leaders at least get that they're doing something wrong.
"They get it easier than a North American," he said, "because the people who brought the rule of law and property rights to the United States (lived) in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were your great-great-great-great-granddaddies."
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.
John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.
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