Why Governments and Legal Systems Matter


Whether clean water distribution and deliveryinfrastructure development in local communities, or educational programs to teach kids the virtues of hand washing, private endeavors often have innovative, agile business-oriented strategies that are conducive to quick and efficient implementation.

Taking a dynamist, often anti-government perspective to social change, author Virginia Postrel offers an interesting discussion of the role of trust in the evolution of modern societies. In the context of contract creation, Postrel explains, “a dynamic society, then depends not only on preserving fluidity, but on permitting permanence. To learn, we must experiment. But to experiment, we must commit ourselves. And we must find ways to cooperate with others, to extend trust.” By creating clear and predictable rules that are enforceable – i.e., through a legal system – people can take those risks to experiment and innovate.

Postrel (to my great pleasure) calls on the work of economist Hernando de Soto in speaking of the “virtual frontiers” of the third world. While “bad” legal systems often create impediments to business success (In Lima, creation of a small garment factory required 289 days, 11 permits and $1,231 – 32 times the monthly living wage), they are still necessary to create trust between strangers transacting at arms-length. Non-registered business owners will experience a limit on growth with the inability to enforce contracts, as many of them rely on family ties. Homeowners lacking title cannot sell their land, will be hesitant to make improvements, and cannot mortgage it to secure financing for a business.

In a 1989 publication of “What’s Wrong with Latin American Economies,” in Reason magazine (cited by Postrel), de Soto gives an illustrative example of the problem with informal economies in the context of two friends looking to start a button factory:

My friend goes very happily to his home and sees his wife. She says, “now wait a second. Think it over. This fellow, De Soto, you barely know him. This fellow, De Soto, after a year, will know who your clients are, whom to sell to, when to sell, and how to sell them. After a year, he won’t need you…”

As a result, my friend will choose instead to associate with a relative—someone in his extended family. And that person won’t produce buttons as good as mine. So they will have a little company that isn’t going to be very prosperous. I’ll have to do the same. I’ll have to find someone to sell buttons who trusts me because he happens to be family of mine. But he just doesn’t sell buttons the way my friend sells buttons. And, therefore, the two talents that were required to make a successful industry in Lima will not be able to merge. Then some anthropologists from Cornell University will come to Peru and say, “Look at Peruvians. They like to work in small family units.”

De Soto’s story demonstrates that without functioning governments, market efficiencies fail, because people will not contract outside of their trusted social networks. They do not have incentives to improve their land or create new economic opportunity because legal structures that offer protection are often ill-functioning or lacking entirely. While governments may be slow and cumbersome at times, they are an essential building block to sustainable economic development. By strengthening structures that respect property rights, private contracts and individual rights, private parties will be given a greater opportunity to thrive in the developing world.



One response to “Why Governments and Legal Systems Matter

  1. Great post. Trust is vital. Francis Fukuyama wrote a book about it. http://www.amazon.com/Trust-Social-Virtues-Creation-Prosperity/dp/0684825252/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1291331573&sr=8-3

    Large super-ordinate projects require trust in institutions. Infrastructure lasting +20 years (roads, electricity, sewers, property) etc. require trust to finance, build and manage. Soft infrastructure (health care, self investing in tertiary education) also require trust as the payoff is long term and a belief in credentialling and efficacy.

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