Open borders and the Curley effect

James Michael Curley, a four-time mayor of Boston, used wasteful redistribution to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston, thereby shaping the electorate in his favor. As a consequence, Boston stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections.

Thus begins the abstract to an interesting 2005 paper by Edward Glaeser and Andrei Schleifer that formally models what they term as the “Curley effect”. With the Curley effect, an incumbent can almost guarantee reelection by instituting policies that result in the mass exodus of that part of the electorate likely to vote against him/her (such as the “rich” or a different ethnic group). These policies are most certain to reduce the welfare (sometimes in a drastic way) of the entire jurisdiction under the incumbent’s control. Among the politicians who put the Curley effect to “good” use, in addition to James Michael Curley, were the former mayor of Detroit Coleman Young and the current president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe. Glaeser and Schleifer have this to say about Young:

Coleman Young was elected the first black mayor of Detroit in 1973 in a four percentage point victory over John Nichols, the white police commissioner. The election split along racial lines. Every white precinct and more than 90% of the white vote favored Nichols. Every black precinct and more than 90% of the black vote favored Young.

Young’s racial favoritism can be seen in his tax policy and his distribution of city services. A 1982 referendum tripled the commuter tax from 0.5% to 1.5%, and raised the residents’ income tax rate from 2% to 3%. This tax, which had no impact on Young’s poorer black supporters, strengthened the incentive for the better off to leave Detroit.

Did Young hurt Detroit? Did he hurt the black residents of Detroit? There is no question that Detroit was in much worse shape when Young left office than when he first entered it. Its population fell from 1.51 million in 1970 to 1.03 million in 1990, a 32% decline. The unemployment rate as a percentage of the civilian labor force rose from 10.3% in 1969 to 20.6% in 1990. The percentage of households living below the poverty line rose from 18.6% to 29.8%. Nearly all the victims of this unemployment and poverty were Young’s black supporters. Over Young’s 20 years, surely in part due to his policies, Detroit became an overwhelmingly black city mired in poverty and social problems.

And this about Robert Mugabe:

Twenty years after Mugabe took over, Zimbabwe descended into a mire of poverty, corruption, and anarchy. Mugabe himself did not appear to care for wealth, but he did single-mindedly pursue power and office. To that aim, his policies induced the whites, and others with skills and capital [such as middle and upper class black Zimbabweans], to flee. He pursued these policies knowing, and encouraging, the emigration that would follow.

Global open borders are likely to reduce the costs of emigrating (no need to obtain travel visas, apply for asylum, obtain work permits and so on) and in this way might enhance the appeal of the Curley effect to the type of autocrat described by Glaeser and Schleifer. This is likely to be so in Africa where ethnicity is often exploited by politicians. If my hypothesis about an open borders-encouraged Curley effect is true, then one might raise the followng question: might the heightened prospect of the Curley effect (and the ensuing across the board reduction in welfare) constitute a reasonable objection to global open borders?

I don’t think so. Even if open borders led autocrats to implement the Curley effect in great numbers, the same open borders would stand to counteract the negative welfare effects. Open borders would, for instance, allow a greater proportion of those targeted by the autocrat’s policies to easily relocate to some other jurisdiction than would have been the case had there been no open borders with a Curley effect.  Those leaving would  include both the well-off  who would have emigrated anyway (have specialized skills, wealth or connections in high places across the border) and those who otherwise would not have left due to the prohibitive costs associated with moving to another country (facing border patrol, obtaining work visas, risking your life at illegal crossing pointsfacing the prospect of being placed in some notorious refugee camp, etc…).  In the extreme case, everyone who was not on the winning side would relocate leaving only those deriving some benefits (however short-lived) to remain. It is reasonable to presume that some blacks must have left Detroit for greener pastures during Coleman Young’s term as mayor, if only because it is difficult to account for Detroit’s substantial population decline by appealing to white emigration only. This was probably more blacks than would have left if citizens of Detroit had been required to obtain entry visas into the United States. In the more recent case of Zimbabwe, approximately 1 million Zimbabweans had by 2008 left Zimbabwe for South Africa. The sense I get from speaking to Zimbabweans living in South Africa is that a lot more of their brethren (spouses, children, brothers, sisters, parents and friends) would have escaped Mugabe’s ruthlessness had it been easier to relocate south of the border without having to meet many unreasonable requirements to work and live in South Africa or any other country bordering Zimbabwe for that matter. So even if global open borders were to encourage the Curley effect, it is very likely that the great portion of the negative welfare effects would be counteracted by migration – in the extreme case, all negative welfare impacts would disappear since everyone affected would find it in their best interests to leave.

I however don’t think that the sort of autocrat described by Glaeser and Schleifer is really responsive to open borders in the way suggested by my hypothesis. For one thing, the Curley effect has been documented among autocrats facing relatively open borders (Curley and Coleman) to those facing relatively closed borders (Mugabe) that it is somewhat far-fetched to suggest that being a Glaeser/Schleifer-like autocrat becomes an even more attractive proposition under open borders. But what seems likely is that open borders would present a way out for those who find themselves victims of the Curley effect. 

HT David Henderson

Grieve Chelwa

Grieve is currently a PhD student in economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Grieve has worked and lived in 5 African countries, in four of those as an immigrant. He is originally from Zambia.

See our blog post introducing Grieve, or all blog posts by Grieve.

3 thoughts on “Open borders and the Curley effect”

  1. This is related to the broader issue of what I might call international Tiebout competition. Open borders allow people to “vote with their feet” to escape bad regimes.

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