[EAS] Documents (and Lice)

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Tue Oct 5 19:56:34 EDT 2004

Subject:   Documents (and Lice)

(from NewsScan Daily, 5 October 2004)

      Economist Hernand De Soto suggests that good documentation
plays a paramount role in the success of capitalism:
      "Why does capitalism thrive only in the West, as if enclosed
in a bell jar?
      "The major stumbling block that keeps the rest of the world
from benefiting from capitalism is its inability to produce capital.
      "Most of the poor already possess the assets they need to make
a success of capitalism. But they hold these resources in defective
forms: houses built on land whose ownership rights are not
adequately recorded, unincorporated businesses with undefined
liability, industries located where financiers and investors cannot
see them. Because the rights to these possessions are not adequately
documented, these assets cannot readily be turned into capital,
cannot be traded outside of narrow local circles where people know
and trust each other, cannot be used as collateral for a loan, and
cannot be used as a share against an investment.
       "In the West, by contrast, every parcel of land, every
building, every piece of equipment, or store of inventories is
represented in a property document that is the visible sign of a
vast hidden process that connects all these assets to the rest of
the economy. Thanks to this representational process, assets can
lead an invisible, parallel life alongside their material existence.
They can be used as collateral for credit. The single most important
source of funds for new businesses in the United States is a
mortgage on the entrepreneur's house. These assets can also provide
a link to the owner's credit history, an accountable address for the
collection of debts and taxes, the basis for the creation of
reliable and universal public utilities, and a foundation for the
creation of securities (like mortgage-backed bonds) that can then be
rediscounted and sold in secondary markets. By this process the West
injects life into assets and makes them generate capital."
for Hernando de Soto's "The Mystery Of Capital: Why Capitalism
Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else" -- or look for it in
your favorite library. Note: We donate all revenue from our book and
media recommendations to adult literacy programs.]

Dear Colleagues -

Documents as an underpinning of capitalism are one of those hidden
factors, crucial but forgotten, in Democratization aspirations. 

I recall a similar sense of startled discovery about a whole new
perspective when I read, some 25 years ago, Zinsser's book "Rats,
Lice and History" about the (to me then unsuspectedly) major role in
history of typhus and other diseases, brought about by lack of
hygiene. Many famous battles would have ended differently had not
epidemics swept through the military camps of one or the other army
- superiority took the form of better sanitary planning.

I suspect, though, that de Soto's subject, and writing style, is no
match for Zinsser's:

...[I]nfectious disease is merely a disagreeable instance of a
widely prevalent tendency of all living creatures to save themselves
the bother of building, by their own efforts, the things they
require. Whenever they find it possible to take advantage of the
constructive labors of others, this is the path of least resistance.
The plant does the work with its roots and its green leaves. The cow
eats the plant. Man eats both of them; and bacteria eat the man...

Zinsser wrote in 1934. Since then the role of disease in history
has been taken up by many other authors, such as in McNeill's
"Plagues and Peoples." And ten seconds with Google will lead you to


More information about the EAS-INFO mailing list