On demography and living standards in the colonial era

This is a topic that has been bugging me. Very often, historians will (accurately) point out mortality statistics in the United States, Canada (Quebec) and the Latin America during the colonial era were better than in the comparable Old World (comparing French with French, British with British, Spanish with Spanish). However, they will argue that this is evidence that living standards were higher. This is where I wish to make an important nuance.

Settlement colonies (so, here there is a bigger focus on North America, but it applies to smaller extent to Latin America which I am more tempt to label as extractive – see here) are generally frontier economies. This means that they are small economies because of small populations.  This means that labor and capital are scarce relative to land. All outputs that come from the relatively abundant factor will thus tend to be cheaper if there is little international trade for the goods that they are best at producing. The colonial period pretty much fits that bill. The American and Canadian colonies were basically agricultural colonies, but very few of those agricultural outputs actually crossed the Atlantic. As such, agricultural produces were cheap. This is akin to saying that nutrition was cheap.

This, by definition, will give settlement colonies an advantage in terms of biological living standards. As they are not international price takers, wheat is cheaper than in the old world. This is why James Lemon spoke of the New World as the “Best poor man’s country” (I love that expression) : it was easy to earn subsistence. However, beyond that it is very hard to go beyond. For example, in my dissertation (articles still in consideration at Cliometrica and Canadian Journal of Economics) I found that when wages were deflated by a subsistence basket containing very few services and manufactured goods and which relied heavily on untransformed foods, Canada was richer than the richest city of France. Once you shifted to a basket that marginally increased transformed goods and manufactured goods, the advantage was wiped away.

Yet, everything indicates that mortality rates were greater in Paris and France and than in Quebec City and Quebec as a whole (but not by a lot) (see images below).  Similar gaps seem to exist for the United States relative to Britain, but the data is not as rich as for Quebec. However, the data that exists for New England suggests that death rates were lower than in England but the “bare bones” real incomes measured by Lindert and Williamson show that New England may have been poorer than Great Britain (not by much though).

Crude Death Rates


I am not saying that demographic and biological data is worthless. Quite the contrary (even I wanted to, I could not since I have a paper on the heights of French-Canadians from 1780 to 1830)! The point is that data matters in context.  The world is full of small non-linearities between variables. While “good” demographic outcomes are generally tracking “good” economic outcomes, there are contexts where this may be a weaker relation (curvilinear relations between variables). I think that this is a good example of that point.


Castro: Coercing Cubans into Health

On Black Friday, one of the few remaining tyrants in the world passed away (see the great spread of democracy in the world since 1988). Fidel Castro is a man that I will not mourn nor will I celebrate his passing. What I mourn are the lives he destroyed, the men and women he impoverished, the dreams he crushed and the suffering he inflicted on the innocents. When I state this feeling to others, I am told that he improved life expectancy in Cuba and reduced infant mortality.

To which I reply: why are you proving my point?

The reality that few people understand is that even poor countries can easily reduce mortality with the use of coercive measures available to a centralized dictatorship. There are many diseases (like smallpox) that spread because individuals have a hard time coordinating their actions and cannot prevent free riders (if 90% of people get vaccinated, the 10% remaining gets the protection without having to endure the cost). This type of disease is very easy to fight for a state: force people to get vaccinated.

However, there is a tradeoff to this. The type of institutions that can use violence so cheaply and so efficiently is also the type of institutions that has a hard time creating economic growth and development. Countries with “unfree” institutions are generally poor and grow slowly. Thus, these countries can fight some diseases efficiently (like smallpox and yellow fever), but not other diseases that are related to individual well-being (i.e. poverty diseases). This implies that you get unfree institutions and low rates of epidemics but high levels of poverty and high rates of mortality from tuberculosis, diarrhea, typhoid fever, heart diseases, nephritis.

This argument is basically the argument of Werner Troesken in his great book, The Pox of LibertyHow does it apply to Cuba?

First of all, by 1959, Cuba was already in the top of development indexes for the Americas – a very rich and healthy place by Latin American standards. A large part of the high levels of health indicators were actually the result of coercion. Cuba actually got its very low levels of mortality as a result of the Spanish-American war when the island was occupied by American invaders. They fought yellow fever and other diseases with impressive levels of violence. As Troesken mentions, the rate of mortality fell dramatically in Cuba as a result of this coercion.

Upon taking power in 1959, Castro did exactly the same thing as the Americans. From a public choice perspective, he needed something to shore up support.  His policies were not geared towards wealth creation, but they were geared towards the efficient use of violence. As Linda Whiteford and Laurence Branch point out, personal choices are heavily controlled in Cuba in order to achieve these outcomes. Heavy restrictions exist on what Cubans can eat, drink and do. When pregnancies are deemed risky, doctors have to coerce women to undergo abortion in spite of their wishes. Some women are incarcerated in the Casas de Maternidad in spite of their wishes. On top of this, forced sterilization in some cases are an actually documented policy tool.   These restrictions do reduce mortality, but they feel like a heavy price for the people. On the other hand, the Castrist regime did get something to brag about and it got international support.

However, when you look at the other side of the tradeoff, you see that death rates from “poverty diseases” don’t seem to have dropped (while they did elsewhere in Latin America).  In fact, there are signs that the aggregate infant mortality rates of many other Latin Americans countries collapsed toward the low-levels seen in Cuba when Castro took over in 1959  (here too). Moreover, the crude mortality rate is increasing while infant mortality is decreasing (which is a strong indictment about how much shorter adult lives are in Cuba).

So, yes, Cuba has been very good at reducing mortality from communicable diseases and choice-based outcomes (like how to give birth) that can be reduced by the extreme use of violence. The cost of that use of violence is a low level of development that allows preventable diseases and poverty diseases to remain rampant. Hardly something to celebrate!

Finally, it is also worth pointing two other facts. First of all, economic growth in Cuba has taken place since the 1990s (after decades of stagnation in absolute terms and decline in relative terms). This is the result of the very modest forms of liberalization that were adopted by the Cuban dictatorship as a result of the end of Soviet subsidies. Thus, what little improvements we can see can be largely attributed to those. Secondly, the level of living standards prior to 1990 was largely boosted by the Soviet subsidies but we can doubt how much of it actually went into the hands of the population given that Fidel Castro is worth 900$ million according to Forbes. Thus, yes, Cubans did remain dirt poor during Castro’s reign up to 1990. Thirdly, doctors are penalized for “not meeting quotas” and thus they do lie about the statistics. One thing that is done by the regime is to categorize “infant deaths” as “late fetal deaths” – its basically extending the definition in order to conceal a poorer performance.

Overall, there is nothing to celebrate about Castro’s dictatorship. What some do celebrate is something that was a deliberate political action on the part of Castro to gain support and it came at the cost of personal freedom and higher deaths from preventable diseases and poverty diseases.

H/T : The great (and French-speaking – which is a plus in my eyes because there is so much unexploited content in French) Pseudoerasmus gave me many ideas – see his great discussion here.