Killing capital

Quico says: Hernando de Soto’s conception of “dead capital” is one of the genuinely intriguing ideas spawned by the development literature in recent years. For de Soto, the problem facing the third-world poor is not just that they own too little, but that the things they do own are economically “dead.”

In the absence of clear titles, the shanty where you live or the buhonero stall you sell from can’t be used as collateral, or rented, or even sold. Because it can’t do any of those things, it doesn’t earn you an “in” into the formal financial system like the capital of the middle class or the rich. It’s yours only in the sense that you can use it, nothing more.

But capital is much more than just the right to use the things that belong to you: it’s the right to leverage them as tools for your economic empowerment and advancement.

Dead capital is the capital of the unfree.

What de Soto is getting at is an old idea in economics: that property is about more than just possession. Capitalism can only work when ownership carries with it a set of rights that include your ability to transact what you own, to borrow against it, to rent it or subdivide it or otherwise leverage it into a tool for attaining your goals. A major reason that the poor find themselves trapped in poverty, in this analysis, is that their property rights are partial and tenuous: they exclude many of the key features that turn mere stuff into living, breathing capital.

The debate in Venezuela’s public sphere has too often missed this distinction between “property” and “property rights.” Earnest chavistas have often pilloried the opposition for scaremongering, putting down their 2007 referendum defeat to a successful opposition scare campaign to convince people that the government was going to literally disposses them: kick them out of their ranchos or move cubans into their apartments.

“Nationalization is about the means of production,” they’ll argue, “about factories and farms and banks…not about people’s houses!”

And while fears of reds knocking down your door may indeed be overblown, what can no longer be doubted is that even if chavismo won’t take away your property, it sure is eager to truncate your property rights. They may let you keep your stuff, but your ability to dispose of the things you own in the way you judge most likely to bring your family prosperity is being aggressively fenced in.

This is the real story of Official Gazette No. 39,272. Without having to expropriate anybody outright, the Gazette truncates hundreds of thousands of caraqueños‘ property rights, eroding their ability to leverage their belongings into tools for their own economic empowerment.

What we have here is a kind of capital massacre: the willy-nilly deadening of a massive store of previously living capital. The second your apartment is designated a “historically protected site” it takes a massive step from the category of capital to mere belonging.

When historic-site status is conferred on entire swathes of Caracas at one go, what we’re seeing is the indiscriminate degradation of thousands upon thousands of families’ rights to dispose of what belongs to them as they see fit, and all for the most tenuous of public-interest reasons. The government kills capital, apparently, for fun.

“Well, of course they do,” you may be tempted to say, “they’re communists: railing against capitalism is their whole thing.”

But that’s not right either. Marxism, for all its faults, at least offers a coherent response to the question of how to generate investment in a post-capitalist order. By socializing the ownership of the means of production, the workers’ revolutionary state itself acquires the tools to leverage the society’s material base into a (hoped-for) better standard of living for everyone. You don’t have to agree that this is a good or even a feasible solution to recognize it as, at least, a solution: a serious, internally consistent stab at explaining how to bring prosperity in the absence of individual property rights.

The problem is that chavismo fails to rise to the threshold of intellectual seriousness Marxism sets out. In Venezuela the state is eroding individual citizens’ rights to leverage their property into capital without proposing any coherent alternative.

Rather than nationalizing all industry and accepting responsibility for the management of society’s productive processes, the state has created a thicket of stifling regulations instead. Those regulations keep a truncated version of ownership in private hands while at the same time preventing private owners from doing the things capitalists normally do for society’s welfare: invest, produce, grow and generate jobs.

They wash not, and yet they refuse to lend out the wash basin.

In Venezuela, capital is not being socialized; it’s being hunted for sport.