Bryan Caplan  

How Castro is Like the Minimum Wage

Capitalism has a PR problem... Why I'm Not Freaking Out...

How many people did Castro murder?  The authoritative Black Book of Communism blames him for 15-17,000 executionsMore speculative estimates put the blood of another 80,000 Cubans on his hands - everyone who perished trying to flee his doleful paradise.  And the man was guilty of many other evils.

Still, by the bloody standards of Communist dictators, Castro's rule was mild.  Castro's Cuba doesn't even look like the biggest charnel house in modern Latin America.  The Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996) probably claimed more innocent lives.  Indeed, multiple U.S. Presidents have killed more civilians than Castro - though of course they had the power to murder vastly more.  Why then should we dwell on the horrors of Castroism - or make a point of dancing on Fidel's grave?

Here's why: Because Castro is a symbol of larger evils - evils that claimed many millions of lives - and could do so again.  Castro symbolizes the idea that backwards countries can and should take the following path to modernity:

1. Wage civil war by any means necessary to overthrow existing regimes.

2. After victorious civil war, hand total power over to Marxist intellectuals.

3. Cheer while these Marxist leaders expropriate business, expel foreign investors, and try to run the whole economy.

4. Use this centralized economy to build up a mighty military.

5. Deploy this military (and military-industrial complex) to help Marxist intellectuals in other countries copy your path to modernity.

Any person of common sense would have foreseen the fruits of this demented recipe: mass murder, slavery, war, famine, and poverty.  But common sense is, alas, not so common.  The horrific Marxist-Leninist "experiment" spread from Russia to Eastern Europe, China, southeast Asia, Africa, and Castro's own Latin America.  And while most of these regimes were far worse than Cuba, Castro did great evil - and continues to do evil - by charismatically inspiring sympathy for this psychopathic path to a glorious future.

In my mind, then, Castro is a lot like the minimum wage: something we must stubbornly decry even though there are far greater ills in the world.  My words: 
The minimum wage is far from the most harmful regulation on the books.  Why then do I make such a big deal about it?  Because it is a symbol of larger evils.

From the standpoint of public policy, the minimum wage is a symbol of the view that "feel-good" policies are viable solutions to social ills: "Workers aren't paid enough?  Pass a law so employers have to pay them more.  Problem solved."...

We need to get rid of the minimum wage.  But that's only a first step.  Our ultimate goal should be to get rid of the errors that the minimum wage has come to represent.

We need to get rid of all sympathy for Castro.  But that, too, is only a first step.  Our ultimate goal should be to get rid of the errors that Castro has come to represent.  Castro was a villain straight out of 1984.  And in a just world, Orwell's words would adorn his tombstone:

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

COMMENTS (29 to date)
Don Boudreaux writes:

Your point, Bryan, is splendid - and splendidly expressed. Thank you for it.

JK Brown writes:

For a perspective of Castro's work from someone who was in the field in Africa, see this post by Bayou Renaissance Man.

Daniel Klein writes:

Your post resonates with my experience the past two days watching:


written, produced, and directed by Sue Williams.

Highly recommended.

Michael writes:

Here's a different spin. Castro was a nationalist in the Bolivar tradition, drawing on anti-colonial rhetoric. He was pushed towards the Soviet Union because the US reacted so aggressively to the Cuban revolution. Why did they over-react? Because of the symbolic value of the revolution. So in one sense it might be a cautionary tale against hyperbolic elevation of symbols. I don't mean in any way to excuse Castro. But balance and context matters.

Pajser writes:

"Castro symbolizes the idea that backwards countries can and should take the following path to modernity"

The communists do not think in terms of "path to modernity." Our goal is more moral, more egalitarian world, and it does not depend whether country one live in is poor or rich. Castro symbolizes idea that it can be done in despite of powerful enemies inside and outside of the country.

Almost all leftists sympathize communism; if they believe communism cannot work well, they would like it can. They often emphasize good sides of Leninist regimes. Some leftist maybe exposed idea about "path to modernity" or similar. I do not know. Maybe it is completely Caplan's idea. But those who want to follow Castro's path have greater ambitions.

I like Castro's egalitarian planned economy; good health and education systems, existential safety, increased equality. Reasonably good GDP growth last 25 years. That economy, like in USSR and China saved lives. (Don't rush to argue without checking life expectancy and child mortality data before.) I do not like dictatorship and all typical consequences.

Jon Murphy writes:


That economy, like in USSR and China saved lives.

The 66 million+ killed by those "economies" might disagree with you.

Mike White writes:

What he just said...times a trillion! Inspiring! Thank you.

Mm writes:

Pajser-good GDP growth? Based on what? The mythic "official" numbers? The economy saved lives-if you over look executions and lived lost in 3rd world expeditions & boat people drownings. Not sure the economy even saved lives if you include malnutrition etc. Egalitarian-not if you got HIV! Egalitarian if you are not named Castro- the equal sharing of misery.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

This really resonates with me having watched the documentary 'The Battle for Chile' by Patricio Guzman last night. It seems that, in the Allende example, you can also get narrowly elected, politically marginalize the opposition and attempt to ram through an unpopular and highly divisive 'revolution', and then jump directly to step #2.

Clearly Guzman was sympathetic to the Allende movement. I, however, even after watching his documentary, remain completely unsympathetic. I will remain forever sympathetic to those who don't want a trans-formative social or economic revolution, who don't want their property 'expropriated' by a Marxist State, and who dob't want to live with the disastrous consequences of Marxist folly. Guzman seemed not to understand that 'democracy' was only favored by Marxists when the outcome goes their way. When it doesn't, then agitation and longing for a bloody revolution are not objected to in principle. See the actions on the Left after the 2016 US Election for a current manifestation...

HokieCoug writes:

Pajser wrote...

I like Castro's egalitarian planned economy; good health and education systems, existential safety, increased equality

As evidenced by the millions clamoring to get into Cuba. ...oh, wait.

Pajser writes:

Jon Murphy -- do you talk about people who died due to inadequate food production, distribution and health systems? Life expectancy in China (1978), Soviet Union (1989) and Cuba (these days) was/is 3-8 years longer than world average; child mortality in these countries was/is 2-10 times lower than world average; all three countries, particularly China, started with planned economy poorer than world average. If you talk about murders of political enemies, it is related to dictatorship aspect of these regimes, not to their economy.

MM -- GDP claim is based on World Bank data about GDP (PPP) per capita. Life expectancy on the base of World Bank data too. Infant mortality on the base of CIA World Factbook. Equality - I do not know exact data, but Cuba is egalitarian in theory and although practice is certainly worse, I do not see space for practice that can reach capitalist-like inequalities.

Hokie Coug -- I guess that most people migrate because USA is wealthier country than Cuba and it not responsibility of Castro's economy.

Jon Murphy writes:


Jon Murphy -- do you talk about people who died due to inadequate food production, distribution and health systems?

Yes. The Great Leap Forward and the Ukrainian Famine were both direct results of this "central planning" and they account for ~83% of the deaths under the three regimes you cite your support for. 83% of 65 million deaths.

The central planning is also responsible for the political deaths. When economy becomes political, it becomes a tool for political repression. Executing gays, dissidents, and anyone else who wasn't equal in the eyes of the Communists/Socialists is still a part of their economic plans. To try and separate the two is not only incorrect but demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of how communism/socialism works.

You can cite whatever "life expectancy" statistics you want, but it does not erase the fact that two of the three worst crimes against humanity in the history of the world occurred in these regimes in the name of communism/socialism.

Jon Murphy writes:


Have you a source for your claim the USSR life expectancy was higher (3-8 years!) than the US? I cannot find any such corroborating data: World Bank, WHO, British Medical Journal, etc all have it significantly lower than the West (in some cases, by 10 years!). The only thing I can find that suggests otherwise is an uncited Wikipedia article.

David writes:

It's a sign of the times that there is even a debate about the type of ruler Castro was.

Mike Sax writes:

All this talk about Cuban dictatorship is quite ironic.

No doubt he was that but he lived just long enough to see the death of American democracy.

If you don't think Trump is a dictator, he's as close as we've ever had.

Jon Murphy writes:


Sorry, just one more thing:

I like Castro's egalitarian planned economy...I do not like dictatorship and all typical consequences.

This is an interesting statement I would like to have explained. Prima facie, it is a contradiction. After all, how can you have a centrally planned economy without a central planner?

Thaomas writes:

I do not see the similarity. The argument for a minimum wage is that (given political constraints on raising the EITC) the harm done to workers who lose/do not get jobs because of a higher minimum wage is small relative to the increased incomes of the workers who retain their jobs. One can agree or disagree with that argument depending largely on one estimate of how many workers are negatively affected and how bad displaced workers next best alternatives are compared to the benefits to retained workers higher incomes.

Murdering people was not necessary in order to do any good thing that might be claimed for Castro's regime.

Pajser writes:

Jon Murphy -- I wrote "Life expectancy in China (1978), Soviet Union (1989) and Cuba (these days) was/is 3-8 years longer than world average; "

USA was/ is far better than world average.

mm writes:

pasjer- as far as the world bank stats-
from the website marginal revolution:
"If you are wondering, the World Bank measures Cuban GDP at over $6,000 per capita, but that is based on a planned economy and an unrealistic exchange rate. In reality, Cuba probably is richer than Nicaragua, where GDP per capital is approximately $2,000, but we don’t know by how much"

Khodge writes:

Castro, by some accounts, died nearly a billionaire. While well-off, US presidents seldom are worth hundreds of millions of dollars based on their time in office. (One possible exception is a recent president who left office dead broke and now has a charitable foundation helping him survive.)

Jon Murphy writes:


I wrote "Life expectancy in China (1978), Soviet Union (1989) and Cuba (these days) was/is 3-8 years longer than world average; "

Ah yes, I did misread. My apologies.

But...that actually makes the case for central planning far worse than I thought it was. I did some digging. Just barely beating the world average means beating out nations that are highly unstable (civil war, insurgency, that sort of thing) or beating out massive disease outbreaks. In fact, I found once I adjusted for those kind of factors (in order to avoid what we economists call "omitted variable bias,") Russia, China, and Cuba were toward the bottom and losing ground against other comparable (that is, stable) nations.

Pajser writes:

Jon Murphy - I think that all political decisions are ethical issues, and they should be decided on some democratic ways. It includes definition of economic goals (e.g. "maximize GDP growth") and conditions (e.g. "keep minimal individual living standard the same"). Role of the central planner is to calculate how to accomplish given economic goal within given conditions.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Thomas: You write that

The argument for a minimum wage is that (given political constraints on raising the EITC) the harm done to workers who lose/do not get jobs because of a higher minimum wage is small relative to the increased incomes of the workers who retain their jobs.

This statement is incorrect. While some people do indeed argue for the minimum wage on the ground that you lay out, the vast majority of the popular arguments for the minimum wage deny that minimum wages inflict any negative employment effects on workers. The fact that you do not argue for the minimum wage in this way - and the fact that a good case can be made that your way of arguing for the minimum wage at least recognizes one economic reality that is denied by most minimum-wage proponents - does not change the fact that nearly all arguments for the minimum wage turn on its alleged ability to increase the incomes of low-skilled workers without causing any of them to suffer job losses. Indeed, this argument - over whether or not minimum wages cause any job losses at all - consumes a great deal of the discussion even in the academic literature.

It is because the vast majority of arguments for the minimum wage deny that such legislation causes any job losses at all that Bryan uses the minimum wage as he does in this excellent post of his.

Mike Hodder writes:

While reading these comments I just can not get the views of General Smedley Butler out of my mind. Perhaps the greatest crime of Castro was to refuse to accept domination by the USA? Britain built an empire and it was not for the benefit of the countries so controlled - it was for profit, pure and simple.

Pajser writes:

Jon Murphy, it would be interesting to see the numbers.

However, 3-8 above world average isn't beating only highly unstable countries. Eight years advantage (Cuba) is enough to beat USA, technologically most advanced country, not highly unstable. Castro grabbed power when Cuba was four times (real) and 14 times (nominal) poorer than USA. According to World Bank.

Three is for China. I actually compared China with all capitalist countries that were in 1950 (when Mao grabbed power) up to twice wealthier than China. Until 1978, China had higher life expectancy than all of them.

Finally USSR was pretty unstable country. It had numerous wars, and with 5% of world population had 30-40% world war victims. Even in 1989, it was in war.

Maniel writes:

Prof Caplan,
Inspired post about bitter truths; well done. Under dictatorships, opposition is effectively destroyed through intimidation, imprisonment, torture, murder, and starvation, and then by propaganda, eagerly received by apologists in countries like our own. The latter, “Lenin’s useful idiots,” must not get out much.
Under the minimum wage, the victims are the poor who carry no political weight – not unlike the dead victims of dictators. The poor are often victims three times: first, when growing up under the threat of crime and the suffocation of mass education; second, when their pathway to self-sufficiency is blocked by unprincipled (or ignorant) governments, which pass laws against their working (minimum wage); and third, when government (taxpayer) largesse offers incentives not to work. Therefore, despite a small number of protests (from enlightened economists), the collateral damage to the poor from exclusionary laws is easily dismissed by the political class. Irony of ironies: the apologists that excuse murderous dictatorships then point to our underclass as a sign that our system of representative government is no worse. Sigh!
Keep up the good work.

Hazel Meade writes:

I'm not sure I agree with your list of what Castro "symbolizes".

Castro symbolizes the idea that Marxist socialism can be implemented in defiance of the USA. That's really all it is. The left loved him because he poked a stick in the eye of America, the symbol and defender of capitalism and their mortal enemy around the world.

Whether it works, or works well is almost beside the point. Indeed the embargo just gave them a perfect reason to excuse Cuba's lousy economy and oppressive regime.

Jay writes:

How does one accurately measure life expectancy out of places like Cuba over the past 50 years? As has been shown in baseball and little league world series, the people don't even have birth documentation. So when Pajser claims with a straight face that one could reliably live 8 years longer in Cuba over the U.S., are we simply taking their own govt. statistics word for it?

Jon Murphy writes:


I'm not sure what source pasjer is using, but the authoritative source is the WHO. From what I understand (so take this with a grain of salt), they use some government data (census, vital statistics), but many countries do not supply those, and the poorer ones that do the data tends to be unreliable (this is not to say they lie, but the data often isn't collected to subjected to the same scientific scrutiny it is in the richer countries). When faced with this issue, the WHO uses modelling based off of the statistics they have from wealthier countries. While I am sure they take steps to account for this, this may actually cause the data to skew upward for many poorer countries.

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