Ireland as a counter-example to the “ghost nations” hypothetical

Post by Nathan Smith

These thoughts began in my mind as a comment on Paul Crider’s post “Ghost nations and the end of emigration,” but I decided they merited a separate post. Crider is responding to the suggestion in Paul Collier’s Exodus that open borders might lead to the complete emptying out of some nations. Collier makes the rather strange suggestion that nations have “existence value” and that it is “not satisfactory” if all the citizens of a nation become prosperous through emigration. Drawing out the ramifications of this suggestion, Crider explains that:

The assessment that the emigration solution to poverty is not satisfactory is just another way of saying that some level of persisting poverty is a price worth paying to keep a nation together and whole. I have granted that preserving culture is indeed valuable, so this is true enough. Stated again more vividly: some level of poverty is justified in order to prevent a language from disappearing from the face of the earth, in order to keep old and cherished customs alive, to preserve literature and music and dances and traditional festivals and even popular knowledge of a nation’s history. The question becomes how much poverty for how long? And who decides? The evaluation of the price of keeping a nation on life-support is ultimately subjective, with culture being more or less important to different individuals. For some, the ability to easily keep traditions alive will be worth foregoing lucrative opportunities in strange and scary lands. For others, being able to feed their families more easily will outweigh sentimental considerations of tradition. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that some individuals may not even particularly like the societies they were born in, and shedding the confines of their conservative native cultures is an act of self-actualization and liberation (imagine being a gay atheist in, say, Uganda). It certainly isn’t clear that the assessments of political leaders academics in either the rich world or the poor world should outrank the personal decisions of migrants and their families, whose lives are most impacted by emigration.

Yes. I find the notion that value should be imputed to nations over and above the, so to speak, services that they provide to their members (cultural, personal identity, community, norms and mores, etc.) very questionable. But I would also ask: Are there any historical examples of open borders leading to the complete disappearance of a nation? Remember, far from being a pure thought experiment, open borders would be (approximately) a return to the status quo ante, to the pre-1914 order when passport controls were rare and migrants could go most places with little interference by the state. Did open borders in the Gilded Age lead to “ghost nations?” Did any nations completely disappear? A certain answer would require more historical exploration and perhaps a bit more definition (what’s a nation, anyway?) but I’m pretty confident the answer is “no.”

And the closest thing to an exception, Ireland, vividly displays how wildly misguided the concern about “ghost nations” is.

Ireland in the age of open borders didn’t completely empty out, but it did see a substantial drop in its population as a result of emigration. After rising steadily in the early 19th century (see here), Ireland’s population dropped by an estimated 1.6 million or so during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, and then continued to fall thereafter as emigration persisted (which may be a good example of the diaspora dynamics that Collier explains so well). Today, the population of Ireland is a mere 3 million, yet according to Wikipedia, “an estimated 80 million people worldwide claimed some Irish descent; which includes more than 36 million Americans who claim Irish as their primary ethnicity.” Wow! The figures suggest that of the natural increase in the Irish population that would have occurred since the early 19th century, the vast majority of it has been channeled abroad through emigration.

So what about the existence value of Ireland? Has the whole world been impoverished by the Irish emigration and the consequent disappearance of the Irish nation? Have we lost a valuable culture, been deprived of its stories and literature, its songs and dances, its peculiar virtues and its lovable foibles, its turns of phrase, its historical memories, its myths and legends? Did open borders enrich the Irish at the cost of depriving the world of Ireland?

How can I make the “NO!” sufficiently resounding? What really happened is the exact opposite. Emigration immortalized and universalized Ireland. Many an American of no Irish descent at all, such as myself, feels St. Patrick’s Day as keenly as July the 4th, and knows “Danny Boy” or “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” as well as Yankee Doodle. Thanks to its own peculiar genius no doubt, but also thanks in a large degree to emigration, Ireland has a cultural influence out of all proportion to Ireland’s share of world population. These things are hard to measure, but Irish cultural influence is probably out of proportion even to the share of the world’s population with Irish extraction. Not only did Irish people take their culture with them, but (a) they communicated it to non-Irish people they met elsewhere, spreading a taste for things Irish, and (b) they enriched Irish culture back home. Pick up a book of Irish songs, and you’ll find some like this:

Deep in Canadian woods we’ve met
From one bright island flown
Great is the land we tread, but yet
Our hearts are with our own
And ere we leave this shanty small
While fades the autumn day
We’ll toast old Ireland! dear old Ireland!
Ireland, boys, hurray!

Many of the songs about Ireland written in emigration describe a sentimentalized Ireland that contrasts with the grim reality of the country as potently described in Frank McCourt’s brilliant autobiographical novel Angela’s Ashes. Which is the truth? Is Ireland “a little bit of heaven,” (I’m not certain it’s written in emigration but I think so) or the nightmare of grinding poverty that Frank McCourt was so eager to get away from? Doubtless, there is truth in both portraits of the country. It seems to me that emigrant nostalgia sometimes reveals things about a place that the natives are too immersed in it to notice. Or natives simply lack a basis for comparison. What to them is merely normal, to emigrants begins to seem wonderful. Certain crossings of barriers in my own life– leaving the Mormon Church, for example, or moving from DC to California– have this character: much is forgotten, but some things (the sensible stability of Mormon family values; the high educational background of the DC population) are seen more clearly from a distance.

It’s not just Ireland. Robert Wiebe’s book Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism emphasizes the role of emigration in catalyzing the formation of European cultural identities. The “existence value” of nations which Collier recognizes was felt most keenly by emigrants from those nations, and organizations formed by emigrants on the territory of the United States were crucial in encouraging Norwegians, Czechs, Irish, etc., to imaginatively embrace and appreciate these national identities back in their homelands. Collier, in an effort to make readers feel the “existence value” of Mali, tells us it is “the ancient culture that produced Timbuktu.” Who knows that? Probably more people know how the Irish saved civilization because the Irish diaspora likes to educate the world in the glories of its national past. If there were a Malian diaspora of tens of millions, the history of Timbuktu would be much more widely known.

I very much doubt that open borders would lead to any “ghost nations.” Yes, there are ghost towns, but that’s different: a town has negligible land, and its economic productivity arises entirely from the fragile advantages of concentration, so when people begin to move away, the trend may accelerate. But because nations have land, at some point, emigration would cause the marginal products of labor and capital to rise, giving a residual population a reason to stay that is lacking in the case of a declining town. Moreover, nations have more comprehensive cultures and identities than towns do. That’s another reason to stay, and for emigrants to take an interest in their homeland, to send home remittances, maybe to return with capital and skills.

I doubt that the typical small nation, in a world of open borders, would fare, in the long run, as well as Ireland did. I think cultures do differ in objective value, and the love of Ireland that emigrants feel generations later, and that they have influenced many non-Irish to feel, reflects some real, peculiar merits in Ireland that probably not every nation possesses. But I think the historical experience of Irish emigration is a much better predictor of how small, poor nations would fare under open borders, than abstract economic models suggesting the emptying out of countries. One of the benefits I look forward to from open borders is the role that emigrants will play in re-imagining many different national heritages, distilling the best aspects of them, and giving them to the world.

2 thoughts on “Ireland as a counter-example to the “ghost nations” hypothetical”

  1. Good post. The counter-example I had in my head while writing my post was the Jewish people, who have existed as only diaspora for large stretches of history yet have maintained cultural continuity. I wondered if that could be chalked up to the cohesive power of having an ethnic identity that is entwined with a religious identity.

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