Paul Collier’s Exodus and the risks of migrant diasporas

Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford University and author of The Bottom Billion, among other recent popular works, believes that, unless checked by unbiased, data-driven policies in the rich world, immigration from the global South to the global North will accelerate to point where both the rich and the poor worlds are harmed by it. In his new book, Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World, Collier describes a model of how large and persistent diasporas can fuel immigration, namely by lowering the natural barriers to migration (a diaspora is a little more like home). Moreover, his model predicts that, absent migration controls, there is no natural equilibrium point; i.e., immigration will continue to add to the diaspora community and the growing diaspora will catalyze more and more immigration.

Given his model, one of Collier’s concerns is that immigration from poor countries will involve “settling” diasporas of immigrants who have anti-social norms and low levels of trust. Indeed low trust and bad norms go a long way in explaining why those countries are poor in the first place, and by settling in the rich world without assimilating, the poor will keep their anti-social norms and risk spreading them to the host population as well.

Throughout reading Exodus, it seemed as if Collier had forgotten what he wrote in the Bottom Billion. In that book, he identified several “traps” that hindered substantial social and economic progress in the poorest countries. The poorest countries usually suffer from a cocktail of these traps. But it isn’t until near the end of the book that he mentions these causes of persistent poverty.

The underlying difference in incomes between rich and poor societies is due to differences in their social models. If Mali had a similar social model to France and maintained it for several decades, it would have a similar level of income. The persistence of differences in income is not inherent to differences in geography. Of course, differences in geography matter: Mali is landlocked and it is dry, both of which make prosperity more difficult. But both have been made more of a handicap than they need to be. Being landlocked is greatly compounded by the fact that Mali’s neighbors also have dysfunctional social models: the war currently raging in Mali is a direct spillover of the collapse of Mali’s neighbor Libya. Being dry is made more difficult by heavy reliance upon agriculture: Dubai is even drier, but it has diversified into a prosperous service economy where the lack of rainfall is of no consequence.

This is not to say that the problems Collier highlights in his newest book aren’t real. I reckon they are, and he provides a useful discussion of some research on trust levels of different societies, citing, for example, a study showing differences between countries of the strategies adopted in cooperative games. But it seems, given his own previous contributions to the understanding of global poverty, that social models are but one facet of the problem. It also seems difficult to tease apart cause and effect in the relationship of trust and the structure of institutions. It is plausible that a large influx of unassimilated low-trust immigrants could impair the smooth functioning of institutions requiring social trust. But it also seems appropriate (or at least strategic) that low-trust norms would arise in environments that lack strong institutions of markets and private property.

Related to the problem of low-trust immigrants is the effect that greater diversity may have on trust in the host society. Collier offers several anecdotes about how the social norms of immigrants from poor countries can lower trust among all parties in society. The anecdotes are typically news stories where immigrants have committed crimes and, instead of condemning the criminals, the immigrant community and its advocates among the indigenous protect the criminals. In such cases, he characterizes the advocates as “supervillains” who damage societal cohesion more than even the anti-social criminals themselves. In the cooperation games I mentioned above, prevalence of defending bad behavior (punishing the agents who themselves punish uncooperative behavior) makes cooperative strategies unstable. Collier frets that punishment of antisocial behavior among immigrants will be viewed as discrimination, and condemnation of behavior misconstrued as discrimination is dangerous to social cohesion.

For all the pages he spends on these dire warnings, he scarcely acknowledges at all that honest-to-goodness discrimination actually exists. The flip side of bleeding heart indigenous liberals and clan-first immigrants defending co-ethnic criminals is indigenous authorities implementing policies that discriminate against minorities. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, in defending “Stop-and-Frisk” policies disproportionately directed at black and Hispanic males and promoting police spying on Muslim communities, is a supervillain every bit as threatening to social trust as any of Collier’s defenders of bad immigrants.

It was interesting to read such a negative view of the functioning of migrant diasporas, having just read (and written about) Robert Guest’s book.  In Collier’s view, a migrant diaspora is something that will quickly grow out of control and possibly begin to etch away at the norms and attitudes that keep society cooperative. In other words, diasporas can hinder the formation of social bonds within society. Guest, by contrast, tries to illustrate that far-flung diasporas can facilitate the formation of social bonds between societies. I am ultimately unconvinced by Collier’s depiction of diasporas as entities to be feared, largely because the incentives to fit in with the host society are extremely powerful, examples abound of host societies coping perfectly well with large diasporas (especially in America), and most importantly, I view immigrants as just regular folks trying to get by. But even supposing Collier is right that large diasporas can hurt intrasocietal bond formation, I would be inclined to view Guest’s intersocietal bond formation story as the more important of the two. I suspect the world faces a greater deficit of international goodwill than it does of intranational goodwill.

Collier’s actual policy proposals do not favor restricting immigration altogether, but aim to reduce the flow of immigrants by dispersing and absorbing diasporas.

A fit-for-purpose migration policy therefore adopts a range of strategies designed to increase the absorption of diasporas. The government cracks down hard on racism and discrimination on the part of the indigenous population. It adopts Canadian-style policies of requiring geographic dispersion of migrants. It adopts America-in-the-1970s-style policies of integrating schools, imposing a ceiling on the percentage of pupils from diasporas. It requires migrants to learn the indigenous language and provides the resources that make this feasible. It also promotes the symbols and ceremonies of common citizenship.

One can clearly see that Collier isn’t a hardcore restrictionist. He even suggests legalizing immigrants as guest workers, partly as a way to reduce the costs of having large numbers of immigrants living in the shadows. Some of the policies proposed here are rather coercive, and limit the very freedoms of movement and association that form the core of my open borders position, yet they are similar in spirit to some of the keyhole policies discussed elsewhere on this site.  And fundamentally, Collier does not want to end immigration, but only to slow–by technocratic means–the acceleration of immigration he foresees. It is perhaps a sobering assessment of the state of world migration policy that, if Collier’s favored policies were implemented globally, it would represent an improvement on the status quo.

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