Friday, December 3, 2010

Trust in the Slum

Suppose we accept that in the rarified air of high commerce that the economy runs on trust.

But what about life at the bottom? What is it like in the mean streets of the western inner city What about commerce in the slums of the third-world city? There, surely, you will find naked capitalism, where the rich get richer, the strong survive, and the poor go to the wall.

The poor don't write, but researchers do, and we have recent research on life on the mean streets of the underclass city. According to Hernando De Soto, commerce in the informal economy of Lima, Peru, is all about gaining the trust of the consumer. According to Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, life on the South Side of Chicago, where President Obama used to community-organize, people struggle along with a remarkably entrepreneurial will. And in the third-world slums of Hyderabad and Africa, enterprising education entrepreneurs run schools that outperform the government schools. When there are any.

Hernando De Soto described the informal economy of Lima, Peru, in The Other Path twenty years ago. He tells the story of the Andean peasants moving to Lima in the teeth of bumbling opposition from the political system and the formal business sector.

The peasants needed property rights, to build houses, to earn a living, and the political system, oriented towards the exchange of favors, did not understand. The politicians and the bureaucrats made it almost impossible, mainly by suffocating bureaucracy, for migrants to live and work in the city legally. What could the migrants do?

One way that peasants could earn a living was by selling goods as a street vendor.

Street vending is illegal, but the peasants did it anyway. In 1986 when De Soto conducted a census of street vending in Lima, he found over 91,000 vendors. Street vendors start as "itinerant" vendors, with no fixed location. Vendors soon establish a fixed route every day so they can establish a reputation for reliability and earn the trust of their customers and credit from suppliers. But, of course, itinerant vending with a limited supply of goods cannot earn as much as vending from a fixed location on the street, so successful vendor soon finds a place to set up a barrow or a stall illegally on the sidewalk. If it's a good pitch, he is soon joined by other vendors. This competition is beneficial, because it helps create a critical mass: "vendors realize that the safety, cleanliness, quality, and variety of goods available" affect the volume of customers and the power of numbers helps to defend them against the government and competing interests. Eventually the successful street vendors combine to build a "minimarket" and then move off the street into permanent markets that they have combined to build and operate. Denied access to the institutions that are supposed to reward trust and reliability, the newcomers to the city must create their own culture of trust without the assistance of the formal legal system. The process is clear. These rural peasants combine to win formal property rights out of a society that hardly knows they exist, and resists their attempts to earn a living from the burgeoning city.

Informal trading is not the only off-the-books activity in Lima. New housing is typically built by "invasions" of state-owned land on the periphery of the city. Mass transit is furnished by informal bus companies that operate in a curious no-mans-land between legality and illegality. And there is a vast economy of small-scale manufacturing that operates outside the law in order to hide from expensive labor laws and business regulations.

The story in The Other Path is clear. The immigrants to the city want to establish property rights for themselves. But they find that they must deal with a political system for which power and the exchange of favors is the only true reality. So they must fight for the right to acquire property rights in their housing and their employment.

That's a sober thought for Tea Party Americans as we struggle with the favor factory of the modern administrative state. How do we convert this corrupt culture of compulsion and its divisive political warfare into a culture of social cooperation, a world where people can abandon the trenches of political attrition and work together to serve each other and benefit society with their wealth-creating skills? How do you reform a political system so that there is less politics?

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