The Power of the Poor
The Bell Jar A bell jar is a piece of glassware with a rounded top and open bottom. It’s designed to protect something – whether delicate plants or objects – from a harsh environment. So, for example, by keeping a plant warm and protected, the bell jar ensures its survival and hastens its development.

In much of his work, Hernando de Soto refers to people living outside of the bell jar. Though not mentioned in the programs, the metaphor is intended to illustrate the stark differences between the legal protections and relatively lower barriers to entry afforded to elites in a developing country—versus the lack of those said protections in the rest of a developing nation.

In other words, the bell jar is a system that protects and isolates a developing country’s tiny class of elites. These elites are shielded by laws and customs from having to compete with the majority in their society — i.e. those who are excluded from the benefits of access to formal property and efficient business law.

The bell jar makes capitalism a private club, open only to a privileged few, and enrages the billions standing outside looking in.
Inside the bell jar are elites who hold property and run businesses using codified law borrowed from the west. Outside the bell jar, where most people live, property is used and protected by all sorts of extralegal arrangements rooted in informal consensus disbursed through large areas.1

Only the tiny minority has capital that is integrated, networked, fungible, and protected by formal property systems. They are linked with the more developed world and can do business with people they don’t know. They also are the few who can afford expert lawyers, insider connections, and the patience to navigate the red tape of their property and legal systems. The vast majority of people are kept out.

In most rich countries, and in the bell jars of developing countries, in contrast, most people have effective rights and expressed duties, whether as workers, businesspeople, tenants or property
owners. If their rights are violated, they have recourse to the law; if they breach their obligations, legal action can be taken against them. The knowledge that legal rights and obligations can be enforced, if necessary, guides people’s everyday actions – and this certainty allows them to pursue economic and other opportunities. In effect, rich countries’ prosperity is created through a variety of sophisticated instruments and norms such as limited-liability companies, partnerships and cooperatives, tradable assets, labour contracts, venture capital, insurance and intellectual property – all of which rely on an effective framework of law and functioning institutions.2

De Soto’s research shows that Western societies have lifted their bell jars to a great degree. For example, Europe was able to transform itself from a feudal structure to a society of more open markets (at least by international standards). But the process was erratic and largely unconscious–taking hundreds of years. A similar process is happening in many developing and post-Soviet nations, though other countries are undergoing no such reforms. People in these countries suffer the most.

De Soto believes that if we do not bring the billions of people who live outside the bell jar today into the system of globalization and give them access to the tools of law and entrepreneurship, their sense of injustice won’t just go away. He worries the excluded poor will eventually move to bring the system down. That’s why, de Soto says “we have to let them in.”
1 de Soto, Hernando. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs In the West and Fails Everywhere Else, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000. p156.
2 From an ILD preliminary document for the UN Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor’s report, Making The Law Work For Everyone. The final report can be seen at