Why open borders are the solution to brain drain

I’m intensely ambivalent about the new book by Paul Collier, Exodus, that’s scheduled to come out in October of this year. Of course, I don’t know exactly what’s in it. But I know the author: Collier is a respected development economist and author of The Bottom Billion, one of the best books on the world’s poorest people and the causes of the world’s direst poverty. And Amazon provides a preview of the contents of Exodus.

More than ever before, those in the poorest countries-the bottom billion-feel the lure of greater opportunities beyond their borders. Indeed, the scale of migration driven by international inequality is so massive that it could make nations as we know them obsolete.

In Exodus, world-renowned economist and bestselling author Paul Collier lays out the effects of encouraging or restricting migration in the interests of both sending and receiving societies. Drawing on original research and numerous case studies, Collier explores this volatile issue from three unique perspectives: the migrants themselves, the people they leave behind, and the host societies where they relocate. As Collier shows, those who migrate from the poorest countries, primarily though not exclusive the young, tend to be the best educated and most energetic in their cultures. And while migrants often benefit economically, the larger impacts of mass migrations remain unsettling. The danger is that both host countries and sending societies may lose their national identities– an outcome that Collier suggests would be disastrous as national identity is a powerful force for equity. Collier asserts that migration must be restricted to ensure that it helps those who remain in sending countries and also benefits host societies that make the investment on which migrant gains rely.

Sharply written and brilliantly clarifying, Exodus offers a provocative analysis on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Interestingly, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution linked to the Amazon page and apparently quoted it, except with slightly different words:

…bestselling author Paul Collier makes a powerful case for the ethical legitimacy of restricting migration in the interests of both sending and receiving societies… [the rest is the same]

I don’t know where Cowen got the text he quoted, which makes the book sound a little more restrictionist than the book description that actually appears at Amazon. Will Collier “make a powerful case for the ethical legitimacy of” migration restrictions, I wonder? Or not? Still, the Amazon book description still says that “Collier asserts that migration must be restricted to ensure that it helps those who remain in sending countries and also benefits host societies,” etc.

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here, but it does seem to matter whether Collier is simply arguing that it would be in poor countries’ interest to restrict certain kinds of migration, and lazily advising this as good economic policy without inquiring into whether it’s ethically legitimate or not, or whether Collier is actually going to try to defend the ethical proposition that it is licit for countries to cage their citizens inside and not let them leave. If he is going to argue that, he is, I think, breaking somewhat new ground. Article 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Soviet restrictions on their citizens’ right to travel abroad or emigrate were long recognized as a violation of fundamental human rights. The Berlin Wall was built for the purpose of violating East German citizens’ right to emigrate. I don’t know as much about this as I would like to, but other than North Korea, how many states today attempt to prohibit emigration? Certainly a lot of people lack the right to emigrate de facto because nowhere will accept them, and this is one of the systemic abuses that open borders advocates want to overcome; but how many states curtail the right to emigrate per se? Or is Collier simply going to argue that other countries should cage citizens of poor countries at home so as to promote the development of their homelands, thus backing into the curtailment of the right to emigrate without attacking it head-on?

Certainly I can see that countries would not want “the best educated and most energetic in their cultures” to leave. What I can’t see is how they have a right to keep them at home by force if they want to leave. Do countries own their citizens like slaves? What might be justifiable is for countries to require citizens to agree not to migrate as a condition for the governments of those countries, say, financing higher education. Thus, if a country has a scarcity of medical doctors, and it offered to pay for some bright young persons’ medical educations in return for their binding commitment not to emigrate, that seems very hard to enforce, but probably not unjust. 

What exactly is wrong with countries restricting the right to emigrate? The objection is essentially parallel to the objection to slavery. It violates human rights. It takes away a person’s ability to choose their own adventure in life, to pursue their dreams and goals, to write their own story. Moreover, it is highly inequitable. Being born in Haiti instead of Hawaii would be a misfortune even if there were no migration restrictions. Rich countries’ immigration restrictions make that misfortune far worse, albeit the elite are often able to get through the barrier. Emigration restrictions would cage them, too. They would add a new dimension to the misfortune of being born in a poor country, even if you were born rich, talented, and well-connected in a poor country.

Moreover, the idea that “the best educated and most energetic in their cultures” should be locked into those cultures by force poisons the very idea of a culture. From many foreign travels and interactions with people from all over the world, I get the strong impression that many people outside the United States (it’s not so common here) identify as much with global culture as with the national cultures with which the accident of birth, reinforced by law and geography, would lump them. That may have been their choice– they find a global culture more interesting and attractive– or “their” culture’s choice– they may be minorities of one kind or another and their culture doesn’t regard them as members of it, whatever they might do to try to earn membership of it– but in any case to be imprisoned in their home countries would really be a kind of exile from the foreign, cosmopolitan, or global cultures with which they really sympathize and in which they really feel at home. Does it serve the interests of their countries thus to imprison them? Quite possibly, but that it’s cruel and wrong seems too obvious to be denied or doubted. The idea of forcing a person to be a member of a culture that they want to leave is ugly, too, because it could and in a sense even should make people resent their the cultures of their native lands, which are thus being protected through the violation of their rights. I like the idea of a person being fond of their culture, liking the cuisine, the songs, the language, the place names, the stories– remembering them fondly, feeling a grow of affection on hearing a rumor of his native land. Can he still feel that way if his native land is the main thing holding him back? If he can’t achieve his dreams as a great composer or a great programmer or a great restaurateur because he’s being forced to stay at home and preserve that culture, won’t he come to hate it? Culture exists for the sake of man, not man for the sake of culture. If culture is made the end and man the means, it is a tyranny, and it is right for him to rebel against it and destroy it.

Concerning the question of whether “national identity is a powerful force for equity,” what is meant by equity? I’m inclined to agree that national identity is a force for equity among co-nationals. But does that really matter? Isn’t it as human beings that we should desire the welfare of others? This comes back to the question of citizenism, much discussed here, though I suspect Collier is not so much a citizenist, in the sense that he only pursues the welfare of his fellow citizens, as someone with a complex social welfare function that places considerable weight on people who inhabit the same country having similar levels of income or wealth. But why would you do that?

I’m not aware of any evidence that national identity is a powerful force for global equity– on the contrary! This brilliant video by Hans Rosling stops in 1948 to make the point that in that year global inequality in health and wealth seems to have been near a kind of historic peak, though in income and wealth it must have gotten worse in the decades following, as the West enjoyed the halcyon days of the post-World War II era, while India stagnated and sub-Saharan Africa saw per capita incomes fall. By contrast, the period since 1980 has been an era of globalization and, at the same time and probably in part for that reason, an era of declining global inequality, even as inequality has increased in most rich countries and especially in the US. My reading of history is that nationalism is a force for equality within nations but for much greater global inequality. I’ll be surprised if Collier contests that. The evidence seems too strong, and not disprovable by “case studies.”

That said, I have written in defense of the nation-state, and I do see dangers in the loss of national identity. In particular, I think national identity facilitates democracy (which in turn reinforces national identity) because people’s concern for their fellow nationals makes them vote in what they perceive as “the public interest,” defined in national terms, and democracy, for all its faults, imposes genuine accountability on political leaders.

But nationalism just isn’t right enough for buttressing it to be a proper goal of an idealist’s efforts. Religion may serve to illustrate the point. Many nations have a common religion which is central to their national identity. The spread of other religions undermines national identity in such cases. If our priority is to preserve national identity, we should desire for Irish to remain Catholic and Indians to remain Hindu. But this conclusion can’t be tolerated. Religion is about truth, and truth does not differ depending on a person’s nationality. If Catholicism is true, we should desire that Indians, too, convert to it; if not, that Irish should cease to believe in it. History is another case. Different nations tend to have different ways of looking at history. For example, the Irish tend to view English rule as unjust and a calamity for their country. If many Irish came to believe that English rule was justly established and beneficial, that would jeopardize Irish national identity. But national identity is not a factor that can legitimately be considered in deciding what one wishes for people to believe about history; again, truth is the criterion. If English rule was just and beneficent, the Irish ought to believe this even if it undermines their national identity. If the alleged “Armenian genocide” was really a genocide, Turks ought to accept that, even if it undermines their national identity; or if not, Armenians should stop alleging it, even if it undermines their national identity. And so forth. The same goes for philosophy: if English philosophers hit on a lot of truth while German philosophers penned mainly dangerous errors, then we should wish on German students of philosophy a strong Anglophilia, and not celebrate revivals of Hegel or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche in Germany on the ground that this reaffirms German national identity; truth must be the criterion. In literature, music, and other arts, the truth criterion isn’t quite as easy to apply, but still, we should not wish for Americans to read only American novelists if Russian novelists are better, still less for a country without much literature of its own, such as Azerbaijan or Malawi, to be cut off from the far better writings that the rest of the world has produced. National identity has little or no legitimacy in questions of what a person ought to believe, and only a little more in the question of what a person ought to read or admire in the arts. Nationalist biases have been the source of a great deal of evil in history. Much of the war, civil violence, and totalitarianism in the 20th century have arisen from nationalist biases and ideologies. Hitler, notably, had a nationalistic victim complex, widely shared among the German people, which is why he was able to win their support; and he is only most egregious example. Nationalism has become more benign since then, but that is because it has been ideologically eviscerated, and partially but increasingly subordinated to universalist values, and we should not try to reverse that process.

Now, if it is not acceptable to chain people into their native countries, and if shoring up national identity is not morally legitimate and probably isn’t possible anyway in the age of the internet, what should we do about brain drain, which seems to be (but we’ll see) Collier’s biggest concern? I hadn’t thought too much about that issue in a while, because my impression was that the research didn’t really support it as a major problem. But Collier is a good research economist, and from the stance he’s taking and the promise of original research, my guess is that he’ll show brain drain is a problem, after all. If so, open borders is actually a good solution to this problem, and especially my DRITI scheme. Open borders can help with the brain drain problem because it would mean rich countries would stop discriminating in favor of the high-skilled, and let in all different kinds of immigrants. Also, if a deficit of well-educated and highly-skilled people is a problem in poor countries, they ought to be eager to import such people from rich countries. Perhaps not many well-educated, highly-skilled people would want to relocate to poor countries, but a few would, and every little bit helps, and an emerging global norm of open borders, so that would-be emigrants from rich countries start to assume that they can probably go and work wherever they want to, would greatly help spur such migration. DRITI mandatory savings accounts, withdrawable in a migrant’s home countries and forfeitable in return for citizenship, would encourage some migrants to return home, not only with new skills and contacts and experiences and opinions, but with capital, too. It’s no accident, by the way, that DRITI has this feature. I developed the DRITI scheme as a means of maximizing the development impact of open borders, and I specifically had brain drain in mind.

Open borders under the DRITI scheme might even shore up national identity, in a good way. People don’t necessarily become less patriotic for being more cosmopolitan. Sometimes seeing the world helps them to appreciate better the peculiar virtues of the place they’re from. Sometimes the resident foreigner is a greater partisan of the place he has chosen to live than the native who was merely born there. Sometimes travelers, tourists, and immigrants awaken people to just what is special about the place they live, what sets them apart from the whole world, what is worth coming to see, what makes it worth coming to stay. But that’s a minor detail. We shouldn’t merely try to turn the clock back. We should also be on the lookout for new forms of community and identity that might do more net good in the world than nationalism has done.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

6 thoughts on “Why open borders are the solution to brain drain”

  1. Thanks for telling us about Collier’s book “Exodus”. It sounds like it is a new, globalized version of Samuel Huntington’s “Who are We”. I’m looking forward to reading the book to see how he deals with the implied restriction on personal freedom and with the benefit that will accrue to those who remain if their government is forced to adjust (become freer and more market driven) to keep people. For a while my tag line was: “When nations compete people win.” But it only works when referring to migrations not wars.

  2. The Indian government is attempting doing something similar to the “have people agree not to leave in return for financing their education” — people who want higher educational subsidies from the government need to repay the full amount of the subsidy if they wish to move abroad later for studies or practice. I’m not able to locate articles on this right now, but will add links when I do.

  3. Completely open borders would totally stop remittances, since there would never be a need to remit money for anything beyond a planet ticket. A plane ticket and your loved ones are in the country where you’re working.

    Completely open borders also greatly reduce the incentives for developing countries to educate their population. Any reasonably well read person will skip country as soon as he can. Even currently in India, the politician class keeps the populace uneducated so as to limit their political options. How much welfare loss will occur due to the lost incentive to create a potential taxpayer?

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