Lima, Peru — Sitting here listening to Hernando de Soto, I think, “How am I going to avoid describing him as a ‘force of nature’?” That is one of the laziest clichés. But de Soto is, I’m afraid, a force of nature. He seems to be thinking constantly, and the thoughts come out in great waves of speech. They are big thoughts and little thoughts, grand concepts and details. As he speaks, de Soto draws on huge reservoirs of reading and observation. He seems to remember everything he ever encountered. Sometimes, he will think for a minute or two, before releasing the waves of speech. This is unusual, in my experience — a long period of silence before the talking begins.
De Soto is a talker and a doer. He is an economist, one of the most influential intellectuals in the world. He is also an “economic activist,” as someone once put it. He has an organization called the Institute for Liberty and Democracy. De Soto is a classical liberal, a free-marketeer, a capitalist (pick your term). He is best known for his advocacy of property rights and the general rule of law. He has spent many years trying to lift the poor out of their poverty. In his career, he has been everywhere, met everyone. He has been praised by U.S. presidents starting with Reagan. Of course, he has won a slew of awards, from governments and private groups. Three of those awards are named for Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. That gives a strong flavor of de Soto’s thought.