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The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else Paperback – July 9, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

It's become clear by now the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in most places around the globe hasn't ushered in an unequivocal flowering of capitalism in the developing and postcommunist world. Western thinkers have blamed this on everything from these countries' lack of sellable assets to their inherently non-entrepreneurial "mindset." In this book, the renowned Peruvian economist and adviser to presidents and prime ministers Hernando de Soto proposes and argues another reason: it's not that poor, postcommunist countries don't have the assets to make capitalism flourish. As de Soto points out by way of example, in Egypt, the wealth the poor have accumulated is worth 55 times as much as the sum of all direct foreign investment ever recorded there, including that spent on building the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam.

No, the real problem is that such countries have yet to establish and normalize the invisible network of laws that turns assets from "dead" into "liquid" capital. In the West, standardized laws allow us to mortgage a house to raise money for a new venture, permit the worth of a company to be broken up into so many publicly tradable stocks, and make it possible to govern and appraise property with agreed-upon rules that hold across neighborhoods, towns, or regions. This invisible infrastructure of "asset management"--so taken for granted in the West, even though it has only fully existed in the United States for the past 100 years--is the missing ingredient to success with capitalism, insists de Soto. But even though that link is primarily a legal one, he argues that the process of making it a normalized component of a society is more a political--or attitude-changing--challenge than anything else.

With a fleet of researchers, de Soto has sought out detailed evidence from struggling economies around the world to back up his claims. The result is a fascinating and solidly supported look at the one component that's holding much of the world back from developing healthy free markets. --Timothy Murphy --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The author, president of an influential Peruvian think tank and a prominent Third World economist, sets out to solve the mystery of why some people in the world can create capital and others cannot. Outside the West, in countries as different as Russia and Peru, it is not religion, culture, or race issues that are blocking the spread of capitalism but the lack of a legal process for making property systems work. Implementing major legal change so as to establish a capitalist order involves changing peoples' beliefs, and de Soto contends this is a political rather than a^B legal responsibility. He believes such a change can be achieved if governments seriously focus upon the needs of their poor citizens for a legally integrated property system that can convert their work and savings into capital. Political action is necessary to ensure that government officials seriously accept the real disparity of living conditions among their people, adopt a social contract, and then overhaul their legal system. Mary Whaley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (July 9, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465016154
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465016150
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (194 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,621 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

119 of 122 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 31, 2004
Format: Paperback
In the past five years I've read a shade under a thousand books, and this is easily the most important of them. In it, Peruvian economist de Soto sets out to do nothing less than explain why capitalism has worked in the West and been more or less a total disaster in the Third World and former Communist states. This has long been a pivotal question for anyone interested in the world beyond their own back yard, and there have been plenty of attempts to explain it before (often in terms of history, geography, culture, race, etc.). However, de Soto's is the most compelling and logically argued answer I've come across. But it's not just me. I don't generally quote other reviews, but my general reaction echoes the most respected policy journals, newspapers, and magazines, who tend to repeat the same words in their reviews:"revolutionary", "provocative", "extraordinary", "convincing", "stunning", "powerful", "thoughtful". Perhaps my favorite line comes from the Toronto Globe and Mail: "De Soto demolishes the entire edifice of postwar development economics, and replaces it with the answers bright young people everywhere have been demanding." Of course readers (especially those on the left) will have to swallow a few basic premises from the very beginning, such as "Capitalism stands alone as the only feasible way to rationally organize a modern economy" and "As all plausible alternatives to capitalism have now evaporated, we are finally in a position to study capital dispassionately and carefully." And most importantly, "Capital is the force that raises the productivity of labor and creates the wealth of nations....Read more ›
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99 of 102 people found the following review helpful By Wendell Cox on October 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The Mystery of Capital, by Hernando DeSoto, could be among the most important books on economics of any century. DeSoto notes that more than a decade after the fall of Marxism, the expected capitalist revolution has not occurred. Capitalism has been successful only in the developed nations and has made little progress in the third world or in the former communist states.
He and his team are convinced that the problem is the lack of well defined property rights. He notes that the poor in under-developed countries have assets, but that their real property is often owned informally, and thus cannot be used to generate capital. As a result, the crucial role of real property is simply absent in under-developed countries.
He proposes the obvious solution --- formalization of informal property rights and notes that acquisition of property through informal means (squatting) has a storied history in the United States and other developed nations. DeSoto understands that formalization will be politically difficult, but points out that both rich and poor will benefit economically. One might call it "trickle up economics."
Finally, formal property rights are under attack in developed nations, through overly intrusive land use and environmental regulations. It is well to reflect upon the potential for slipping toward a system that allows virtual squatters to seize or nullify property rights through regulation, threatening a principal source of national income.
Wendell Cox
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286 of 309 people found the following review helpful By Adam Wasserman on November 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Attempts to explain why the 3rd world (and the 2nd world, now that communism has largely collapsed) is different from the developed world tend to fall between two poles. At one end are those who seek an Archimedean point--a single underlying cause which, once grasped, will allow us to quickly move developing countries up the socio-economic ladder. Such explanations have the virtue of being useful to people who actually work in 'development', because they convince us that we know how to produce fundamental change. But they run the risk of oversimplifying and, if taken as a guide to policy, of raising expectations only to see them dashed by the complexities and historical quirkiness of the real world.
At the other pole are holistic, multifaceted explanations, taking into account history, culture, economics, religion--the whole nine yards. Such accounts may be more intellectually satisfying, but often lead to frustration by convincing us that the problems are too complicated, too resistant to quick fixes, for practical solutions.
The Mystery of Capital falls for the most part in the first camp. It's author, Hernando de Soto, is one of the 3rd World's most dedicated and intelligent reformers. He wants desperately to do something to help the poor, and has been heroically influential--and successful--in arguing against the failed statist solutions long in vogue in Latin America. Now he wants to move beyond criticism to a positive agenda for change. De Soto's impeccably pro-capitalist credentials make his initial criticism especially convincing: actual capitalism in most of the world is restricted to a small elite, while most remain on the outside looking in.
The question is whether de Soto's solution is equally convincing.
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful By econdude on May 26, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The Mystery of Capital is recommended, among others, by no less than Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, Margaret Thatcher, and William F. Buckley Jr. That's not why you should read the book. De Soto examines a necessary and misunderstood topic: why are poor countries poor? His arguments and insights make the book a necessary read for the economist, or other educated person.
The main point of The Mystery of Capital is that the seemingly intractable and hopeless situations in Third World countries is due in large part to one common problem: the issue of property rights. Macroeconomic policies make piecemeal improvements (or may improve nothing at all). Money is not the source of the wealth in a nation. Capital is the source of the wealth of nations! Facilitating the proper legal environment is an integral part of the creation and growth of capital, something First World nations had to develop, and something de Soto argues that Third World nations can develop.
The book gets a bit dry in the latter half, but is definitely worth the read. De Soto covers legal ramifications and reforms that will help build a bridge for "dead capital" to be converted to "live capital". The Mystery of Capital will be a surprise for some, because of de Soto's synopses here and there about what life is like for those who live in Third World countries, and the enormous amount of (untapped) wealth the people of Third World Nations possess.
De Soto is a decent economist, in part because he draws from so many disciplines and sources. He also did a prodigious amount of observation and collection of data (hardly an ivory tower academic). If you have an interest in developmental economics, law and economics, entrepreneurship, History of Thought, Economic History (especially that of the U.S.
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