The Mystery of Capital or the Mystification of Capital?

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Journal Article
Review of Social Economy, 2013, 71 (4), pp. 427 - 442
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In contemporary political economic analyses of development processes, Hernando De Soto's The Mystery of Capital, has been one of the most discussed, albeit controversial, books. Although well received by global development agencies such as the World Bank, a key exponent of De Soto's work, positing that the creation and institutionalisation of individual property in housing and land revives "dead capital" and creates the conditions that will enable the poor to emerge from abject poverty, has been widely criticised. These criticisms show that (1) the thesis is flawed, (2) the flaw is due to implementational problems and (3) the practical implications arising from the thesis are largely neutral and will neither improve nor worsen poverty. Although agreeing with the first criticism, this paper argues that the second critique must be nuanced, and the third is entirely mistaken. Utilising insights from Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Polanyi and Henry George, it makes the case that applying De Soto's ideas through policy would be ineffective in curbing urban poverty, and actually serve to simultaneously entrench and augment it. Moreover, while finding that De Soto's assumption that the poor possess some economic agency is sound and may, indeed, secure socially beneficial outcomes through pursuing innovative and entrepreneurial endeavours, De Soto's conception of such processes remains largely emasculated from broader political economic considerations. © 2013 © 2013 The Association for Social Economics.
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