The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Taking no prisoners

Juan Cole covers a lot of ground in a many-sided examination of issues raised by Mel Gibson's splatter movie:
The phenomenon of Mel Gibson's The Passion, about the death of Jesus of Nazareth, has provoked a lively debate about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Historians are well aware that medieval passion plays (which shared the sado-masochistic themes of Gibson's movie) often resulted in attacks on Jews. The concern of American Jewish leaders is therefore entirely valid.
Cole then goes on to look at this from several unexpected angles.

Comments on De Soto

Several readers have been kind enough to respond to my request for comments on Hernando de Soto's campaign to reform property law in the so-called Third World. The comments have been interesting, informed, and diverse. Here they are, without further comment.

Svein Olav Nyberg:
De Soto: He seems to be on to a real problem and a real solution. I have seen articles elsewhere - especially The Economist, which I regard as a very good newspaper regardless of stance - where such issues have been highlighted; sub-equatorial Africa suffers a lot from the problems of property that is not property, property that stops being yours when you move off the land. But it would probably be good to balance that with your own experience: When property stays your own when you move off the land, how do you draw the land to massive absentee landownership? I think such concerns would be good to throw into the mix if a new concept of property rights is in the creation around the planet.

David O'Kane:
With regards to whether or not De Soto has a point when he advocates the extension of private property rights to the 'wretched of the earth'. Does he really have a point? Yes and no - mainly no, I'd say from what I know about Africa land tenure
and land reform anyway.
Briefly: the idea that the state (or the elite group which controls it) is able (or even willing) to wave a magic wand and change various local types of indigenous land tenure betrays a fundamental ignorance of how African land tenure works.
Writing forty years ago, Paul Bohannon noted that while western systems of property are centred around relations between individuals and the objects, things they own as property, African systems of land ownership are centred around the relations between individuals and the other individual members of their particular social group. This group may be a lineage, a clan or a village community, but it's generally groups, not individuals who are the ultimate land owning bodies in most African societies. (This isn't 'primitive communism' by the way - it's better considered as resting on a dialectical relationship between the individual and the group). What that means is that it would be a lot harder than people might think to bring about a move to individualism in African property.
Which is not to say that there haven't been attempts - with varying degrees of success - to introduce individualised private property into Africa. The longest running such attempt has been in Kenya. The British colonial authorities started the land reform programme in the 1950s, and it was taken over by the post-colonial state and continues to this day. The results have been mixed. In most cases that I'm aware, local systems of tenure have persisted behind the mask of the new individualised system, and the expected increases in agricultural production have been mixed. In some areas the extension of individual property did bring about an increase in agricultural production, but in others the increased production pre-dated the reform.
I know the Kenya case from the work of other anthropologists and development experts (not that I'd yet claim to be an expert myself, of course), but I did get to see some of the Eritrean case at first hand. The Eritrean government has been widely criticised for declaring the nationalisation of the land in 1994. Many of those criticisms are well founded - especially the land proclamation's apparent neglect of Eritrea's pastoralist population - but I think it was still preferable to an attempt at 'shock therapy' style privatisation of the land. While a lot of the peasants I met were suspicious of the government's motives in declaring land nationalisation, they were all of the opinion that it would be utterly wrong to sell or trade the land of the village (they held their land under the diessa system, where land is owned by the village as a whole). I'm of the opinion that attempted privatisation would have only triggered a social and political crisis in the Eritrean countryside, which would have hindered, not helped, the country's development.
Now it may be that De Soto's book (which I've not yet read) may deal with problems like this). But seeing the way it's used in support of blithe assumptions like those in the link you posted, I'm a bit wary of its prescriptions. Capitalism's a nice idea in theory, but it'll never work in practice. As for the Egyptian reform, I saw an analysis of it a couple of years ago which argued that it was likely to lead the impoverishment of a great many Egyptian peasants - which would be unlikely to help Egypt's economic situation, or its political situation.
I hope the above is some use (as you can imagine, I can bang on about this for hours).

Jim K:
I've heard something of De Soto's views, and read in "The Other Path" (it's a long book, with detailed data and lots of tables). The Forbes article is somewhat over the top, and I think they do De Soto's ideas a disservice by presenting them as a formula for jump-starting utopia. Rather, they would do in many countries what the "bourgeois revolutions" of the 18th and 19th centuries did in the West: simplified and streamlined commercial codes and laws out of their medievlal and byzantine complexity (which very much serves the local elites and their hangers-on). There's a picture in "The Other Path" that shows De Soto and his assistance showing the sheer physical extent of the existing Peruvian regulations that need to be satisfied to set up a business legitimately: it came to a printout over 100 feet long, printed in small type! In short, from what I've seen De Soto's ideas are the real thing. They'd be hell to put in place though, in the face of the elite's objections (and they will object).

Josh Buermann:
His major project for 'legalizing capitalism' in Peru was the COFOPRI program, which has given over a million titles of publically held land to already existing urban land invasions around Lima and elsewhere in the past five years or so. It's rural projects were somewhat more limited, but essentially it's a voluntary land reform program that De Soto managed to sell to the World Bank, among others. So far as I can tell it's the first progressive policy to be embraced by the neoliberals since they spawned out of the general abandonment of progressive policies. It's only snake oil if you believe all the promises.

Ric Locke:
Here in the U.S., among Libertarians, de Soto is becoming fairly well known, and somewhat celebrated. He is actually causing something of a stir in Latin America, as well.

De Soto's thesis is a bit bigger than what you describe. Roughly summarized, it is that, in total, the assets of the "ordinary people," from shopkeepers and small-business providers down to workmen's houses, vastly exceed the assets of the State-owned and Big Business entities, and that
countries are understating their total wealth and unecessarily restricting their access to capital by failing to provide mechanisms by which those assets could be protected and recognized. His thoughts were instrumental in convincing Mexico to dismantle the _ejido_ system (roughly a cross between kibbutzim and feudal holdings) and begin issuing land titles, a process which is under way but nowhere near completion.

By repute, his work is best read in the original Spanish. I wouldn't know; I'm not at all facile in Spanish. I have read _The Mystery of Capital_ in English translation, and found it unfortunately somewhat pedestrian, which tends to obscure the ideas. Recommended anyway, though.

Many thanks to all who wrote.


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