Happy New Year’s Eve! At the turn of the year our thoughts naturally turn simultaneously toward reflection and the future. There are many dimensions of our lives in which the future looks more bleak for individual liberty and autonomy than they did a year ago, which is one reason why the Atlas Foundation’s list of the top ten pro-liberty books of the decade is so timely and will be so useful. These ten books range from economics to philosophy, from applications to theory, and include Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues, and Bill Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth. The top pro-liberty book on the list is Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital:
#1 Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (2001) by Hernando de Soto
Hernando de Soto’s seminal The Mystery of Capital made him one of the most famous economists in the world. The book earned him praise from New York Times Magazine, “To the leaders of poor countries, de Soto’s economic gospel is one of the most hopeful things they have heard in years.” In Mystery, de Soto revolutionized the development debate, and had the rare privilege of testing the application of his ideas. De Soto offers a more realistic alternative to 20th century redistribution schemes that achieved little more than inflating political power, encouraging corruption, impeding the rule of law, and perpetuating poverty. Aware that developed countries did not start wealthy, and weren’t assisted by foreign aid, the De Soto coordinated a series of empirical investigations to identify what prevents the Third World from reaching the same level of development as the First. He discovered that institutional costs imposed by governments all over the world are the main obstacles to reducing poverty. Real estate is the most emblematic case. The fact that states do not recognize the property rights of millions of people to the homes they effectively own prevents them from capitalizing on goods that sum billions of dollars. Free exchange and initiative has made poverty more of an exception than a rule in the developed world, and it is the lack of freedom that imprisons millions of people in a condition of poverty. No book of this decade demonstrates this better than The Mystery of Capital.
If, like me, you are feeling angry and dispirited by the turn toward bureaucracy and government hegemony, these works provide ideas and examples that distill and crystallize why individual liberty is such a crucial value for individual well-being and for healthy civil society.