April 05, 2004

Property Rights Champion Hernando de Soto Wins Friedman Prize for Liberty

Hernando de Soto, author of the influential Mystery of Capital and founder of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy has won the 2004 Friedman Prize for Liberty.

Rare is the economist who finds himself the target of terrorist bombings and assassination attempts, but Hernando de Soto is no ordinary economist. Beginning in his native Peru, de Soto has focused on a revolutionary concept that is having repercussions throughout the world's poor countries: the lack of formal property rights as the source of poverty in poor countries. His decades of pioneering work for presidents and in the streets on behalf of property rights for the poor have led to global acclaim and recognition.

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From his Peruvian roots, de Soto now can be seen traveling throughout the world, meeting with current and future heads of state. President Vicente Fox of Mexico sought out de Soto for help when he was the governor of the state of Guanajuato, and today de Soto is working with the Fox administration on property rights reform. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, approached de Soto and today a property rights program is about to be implemented in Egypt. Both Philippine presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo have invited de Soto to help. The New York Times reports that African presidents are faxing him.

De Soto tells these heads of state that their poor citizens are lacking formal legal title to their property and are unable to use their assets as collateral. They cannot get bank loans to expand their businesses or improve their properties. He and his colleagues calculate the amount of "dead capital" in untitled assets held by the world's poor as "at least $9.3 trillion" - a sum that dwarfs the amount of foreign aid given to the developing world since 1945.

Hernando de Soto has truly revolutionized our understanding of the causes of wealth and poverty. While many scholars have pointed to and explained the importance of property rights to rising living standards, de Soto has asked the hard question of what it takes to get the state to recognize the property rights that function within the communities of the poor. Can they transform the mere physical "extralegal" control of assets into capital, a key to sustained economic development?

De Soto affirmed that they can attain legal status and developed a guide to the "capitalization process" for poor countries. In his activism and in his books The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto has done much more than apply the lessons of economics to old problems; he has asked new questions and provided both new understanding and new hope for transforming poverty into wealth.

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For his efforts, the Peruvian Marxist terror group Shining Path targeted him for assassination. The institute's offices were bombed. His car was machine-gunned. Today the Shining Path is moribund, but de Soto remains very much alive and a passionate advocate. Delivering formal property rights to the poor can bring them out of the sway of demagogues and into the extended order of the modern global economy. "Are we going to make [capitalism] inclusive and start breaking the monopoly of the left on the poor and showing that the system can be geared to them as well?" That's de Soto's challenge and his life's work.