In 1989 the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto published a remarkable book, The Other Path, a detailed exploration of the extralegal economy, mostly based on his research in Peru.  He pointed out that the informales controlled 60% of the Peruvian economy, and his group painstakingly documented the barriers to full legality.  To open a tiny garment factory, for instance, took nearly a year as well as fees totalling five times the monthly minimum wage.  (And none of this red tape had any actual social utility: not a single bureaucrat actually asked to see the factory.)

In 2000 he published a follow-up, The Mystery of Capital, which presents research in more countries (Egypt, Haiti, the Philippines, and Mexico) and makes a bolder thesis: that extralegality is itself an oppressive situation that results in the underdevelopment of the Third World.  In the Philippines, for instance, he estimates that extralegal property alone is worth $132 billion– four times the value of all the firms on the country’s stock market.

As he documents, the informals have their own property arrangements among themselves for recognizing ownership.  So why is legalization important?  Mostly because titles allow mortgages.  He points out that 70% of new businesses in the US raise capital by mortgaging property.   There are other benefits as well, from the use of the court system to access to insurance to better relations with law enforcement.  Informal companies can do a lot but they can’t expand into major companies or take advantage of economies of scale.

Just recording titles isn’t enough, and he criticizes governments who think high-tech computer mapping is all they need.  People will only use systems that seem fair to them, and that means recognizing and regularizing the informal systems they’ve developed themselves.  To make it all work requires work by politicians, lawyers, banks, and the residents themselves.

Intriguingly, he shows that the same problems hit the US, Europe, and Japan.  In the US, for instance, in theory the government managed the westward expansion, selling land to settlers.  In practice much of the settlement was started by squatters.  There were big fights in the 1800s over this, and a slow turn from fighting the squatters to recognizing them as valuable agents who were creating national wealth.

De Soto has been highly praised on the right, though I have a sense his friends haven’t read him very carefully.  He’s taken as praising capitalism, supporting property rights, and lauding small businessmen… stuff the right thinks it’s doing.  But he’s actually a severe critic of capitalism, and warns that globalization and capitalism are largely failures in the Third World, because nothing has been done to address the systems that exclude the poor.  “Capitalism” in the Third World all too often is limited to little bubbles in the capital where First World rules apply, and the elites aren’t even aware of the obstacles that prevent the bubbles from expanding to serve the whole nation.

On the left I think he’s largely ignored, or else assumed to be an apologist for the elites or for globalizing capitalism, which he certainly is not.  His main point is that the poor have enormous energy and want to be part of the system, and the system should make reforms to let them in.  Third World legal systems largely assume that the legal sector is a tiny, urban phenomenon; it did not anticipate and can’t handle the flood of millions of people who prefer the opportunities of urban life.

If you’ve never read him, I recommend either book– I really don’t think development in the Third World can be understood without confronting his ideas.  They’re not a program for utopia– we have property rights here and that doesn’t prevent us from being pretty messed up.  But much of the world would love to advance to our organizational level.  It’s just absurd to maintain the levels of corruption and red tape that he describes; they are certainly real obstacles to people building prosperous economies and should be fixed pronto.

On the whole, I think the first book was stronger.  The second adds more cases, plus some salutary lessons from US history, but it’s often repetitive and relies a little too much on exhortation and cutesy metaphors.  He’s been involved with actual legalization programs, and I wish there were more details on how those have gone and what lessons have been learned.

(The last ten years have maybe not been kind to the idea of building wealth through mortgaging.  So his estimations of the value of informal property may be exaggerated.  But again, his basic point about the informals being excluded from the financial and legal sector is hard to refute.)