Hernando Desoto, Property Rights, and Egypt

Lynne Kiesling

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal featured an essay from Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto, focusing on the socio-economic roots of the current protests against the authoritarian Mubarak government. De Soto’s work on the debilitating consequences of the lack of property rights for individual prosperity and economic growth is outstanding, and he has been working in Egypt for some time. He summarizes a study he published in 2004:

• Egypt’s underground economy was the nation’s biggest employer. The legal private sector employed 6.8 million people and the public sector employed 5.9 million, while 9.6 million people worked in the extralegal sector.

• As far as real estate is concerned, 92% of Egyptians hold their property without normal legal title.

• We estimated the value of all these extralegal businesses and property, rural as well as urban, to be $248 billion—30 times greater than the market value of the companies registered on the Cairo Stock Exchange and 55 times greater than the value of foreign direct investment in Egypt since Napoleon invaded—including the financing of the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam. (Those same extralegal assets would be worth more than $400 billion in today’s dollars.)

The entrepreneurs who operate outside the legal system are held back. They do not have access to the business organizational forms (partnerships, joint stock companies, corporations, etc.) that would enable them to grow the way legal enterprises do. Because such enterprises are not tied to standard contractual and enforcement rules, outsiders cannot trust that their owners can be held to their promises or contracts. This makes it difficult or impossible to employ the best technicians and professional managers—and the owners of these businesses cannot issue bonds or IOUs to obtain credit.

I strongly recommend reading his whole essay; this excerpt cannot convey the eloquence of his argument for formal, transparent protection of private property rights for all individuals at all income levels, and the effects of such institutions on their prosperity and on economic growth.

I first wrote about his 2004 Egypt report back in 2004, and will reprint that original post here to complement De Soto’s outstanding essay.

[February 23, 2004] Friday at the Mercatus Chief of Staff Retreat, Hernando De Soto spoke on the work that they are doing in Egypt. Hernando De Soto founded the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Peru, successfully fighting the Maoist Shining Path guerillas in Peru. De Soto laid out the economic and philosophical argument for why law, liberty and democracy are fundamental foundations of development in The Other Path. His most recent book, The Mystery of Capital, delves into the consequences of the lack of legal ownership and property rights in poor societies.

De Soto and ILD have been working in Egypt for 4 years, mapping out how much of the asset base in Egypt is actually “owned” and operates beyond the confines of existing law, and how much economic activity takes place in an underground economy. They have found that 92 percent of Egypt’s asset base is in the hands of Egypt’s working poor, and that ownership of these assets is not supported or enforced by Egypt’s legal system. DeSoto and the ILD have been working to persuade the Egyptian government that bringing law and property rights to the Egyptian people will not only create an environment in which they can be economically productive, it will also be a good political move to be the government that empowers such a large percentage of the voting population.

This was the first time I have heard De Soto speak, and he truly is inspiring. He is able to move from the specific features of Peru or Egypt to the general benefits that accumulate when societies have the legal institutions that support the move from personal to impersonal exchange. Trust is an important precursor to exchange, and institutions that enable trust among strangers and thus facilitate exchange are important precursors to economic growth. Another aspect of trust is the longevity of the business. To paraphrase from De Soto’s remarks, in poor societies you worry more about whether the businessman is going to have a heart attack, because the legal institutions do not exist that support the longevity of his business beyond his life. This lack of longevity shortens timeframes, meaning few or no long-term contracts and diminished investment.

Another interesting point that he made is that in economically vibrant countries like the US, most small business is initially funded by mortgages and second mortgages on homes. The ability to borrow against your home is not available in many poor countries because of the lack of legal ownership. As he put it, in the US your home can do many things for you simultaneously. In poor countries, it does one thing: provides a roof over your head.

And as De Soto said, these legal and economic institutions are more important than roads or ports, so if we really want to help the poor in developing countries, we should focus on institutions that create business longevity, facilitate impersonal exchange across larger markets, and enable people to borrow against their assets.

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