Ghost nations and the end of emigration

One of the more interesting studies that Paul Collier discussed in his new book was this one by Frederic Docquier et al, which applies a general equilibrium analysis to the impact of outward skill flow (“brain drain”) on different regions. While the skill outflow is typically viewed as directly detrimental to a poor nation that needs all the skills it can find, it also has several indirect mechanisms that are beneficial to economic growth. These include stimulating education and skill development (people want to emulate the successful emigrants), decreasing the transaction costs of cross-border investments, facilitating the diffusion of technology, and of course, financial remittances, among other effects. In folksier language, many of these indirect effects of emigration amount to plugging the country into the global network. One of the results of this study was that small nations that have already experienced significant emigration of skilled workers fare the worst in the short-to-medium term from yet more skill outflow.

Collier uses this result, along with his model of non-equilibrium diaspora effects I described in my last post, to portray small, poor countries as the worst losers of increasing global migration. Indeed, he expresses the worry that poor, small nations will empty out entirely, and the world as a whole stands to lose from this. In a world of open borders, it seems plausible that this could indeed happen. There is a ready analogy with ghost towns, which exist even in advanced economies. In his excellent book, Let Their People Come (or see this page on this site), economist Lant Pritchett discusses how various shocks or other natural economic phenomena can—if people are able to move—result in ghost towns. An example would be a mining town built up during a gold rush.

[First], people do not want to be there; then gold is discovered, and many people want to be there; and then, when the gold is mined out, people want to leave. The existence of “ghost towns” even in prospering countries—places that were once booming and attracting migration that subsequently declined and even disappeared—suggest that there is variability to optimal populations.

Especially with small populations where the labor supply is experiencing economic pull from other places offering higher wages, open borders could evaporate entire peoples away from their original homelands. This has the makings of an interesting argument against open borders, but it isn’t clear to me how much force it has. The first thing to consider is that, as a national population is split up into many different nations throughout the world, there would be significant pressure on individuals to assimilate, for all the usual reasons. Let’s call our hypothetical small and poor nation Elbonia (from the Dilbert universe). Despite Collier’s fears, the historical tendency is for the descendants of immigrants to eventually blend into the rest of the population. If roughly all Elbonians leave Elbonia so that Elbonia can no longer meaningfully be said to exist, then this blending into host populations means there’s a high probability the Elbonian culture will wither and die over a few generations. A potential cost of open borders then is the death of some cultures.

The tragedy of this should be given its due. One of the most poignant arguments I’ve heard for preserving the ability of a people to restrict immigration came from David Miller in his essay Immigration: The Case for Limits (found in this volume), where he discusses the possible impacts of immigration on language. His essay is about immigration and host societies, but similar arguments should obtain for emigration and sending (or evaporating) societies, possibly with even greater force.

Consider the example of language. In many states today the national language is under pressure from the spread of international languages, especially English. People have an incentive to learn and use one of the international languages for economic and other purposes, and so there is a danger that the national language will wither away over the course of two or three generations. If this were to happen, one of the community’s most important distinguishing characteristics would have disappeared, its literature would become inaccessible except in translation, and so forth.

A people dispersing into many different nations and eventually assimilating will likely lose their language. The only literature that will survive will be whatever pieces already warranted translation into more international languages. This is a loss not only to that people but to the whole world as well. Miller goes on to discuss other aspects of culture that would be at risk if significant immigration were allowed (or emigration, in our case).

There is an internal relationship between a nation’s culture and its physical shape–its public and religious buildings, the pattern of the landscape, and so forth. People feel at home in a place in part because they can see that their surroundings bear the imprint of past generations whose values were recognizably their own. This doesn’t rule out cultural change, but again it gives a reason for wanting to stay in control of the process–for teaching children to value their cultural heritage and to regard themselves as having a responsibility to preserve the parts of it that are worth preserving, for example. The “any public culture will do” position ignores this internal connection between the cultural and physical features of the community.

Here the case is even sharper for an emigrating society than for a host society. After all, a host society accepting immigrants will at least retain its historical architecture and its landmarks while its legal and cultural institutions retain the survival advantage of inertia. Something clearly is lost when a culture disappears, or at least this seems to be the popular intuition (which I endorse). We think of a genocide as somehow even more evil than “mere” murder of a large number of disconnected people. The probes of anthropologists among indigenous peoples are as delicate as they are for a reason, even though it’s at least arguable that imposing modernity upon hunter-gatherer tribes could do those people some utilitarian good. We recognize there is something sad about the fact that past civilizations like the Mayans or the Romans are no longer with us, though of course it isn’t as if the Mayans and Romans were all killed. Those civilizations merely evolved with their decline or were absorbed into other civilizations. I suspect we feel nostalgic for the past in part because we see in the past aspects of our culture that are no longer with us.

Collier makes this argument against emigration explicitly in his book, tipping his hat to environmental economists for introducing the concept of “existence value”, whereby we gain value from something existing, even if we never see or interact with it.

[While] you may never see a panda, your life is enhanced by the knowledge that it exists somewhere on the planet. We do not want species to become extinct. Societies also have existence value, arguably far more so than species and not just for their members but for others. American Jews value the continued existence of Israel, even though they may never go there. Similarly, millions around the world value Mali, the ancient society that produced Timbuktu. Neither Israel nor Mali must be preserved in aspic: they are living societies. But Mali should develop, not empty. It is not a satisfactory solution to Malian poverty if its people should all become prosperous elsewhere.

Here again I agree that societies have existence value. But there are other considerations as well. It’s clear in the passage above that preserving a nation for the sake of preserving its culture for world heritage is fundamentally an aesthetic endeavour. Aesthetics can of course be very important, but it is strange to deploy the very coercive measures involved with migration control in order to achieve an aesthetic goal. No one would consider it acceptable to forbid artists from working in other (more highly remunerative) industries on the justification that artists, for their own good and ours, should really focus on making art. It matters significantly that an emptying nation and the resulting disappearance of its culture does not involve anyone actively destroying culture. Voluntary emigration is very different from the Taliban blasting ancient Buddha statues to rubble.

Preserving culture for world heritage imposes an unfair and extremely heavy burden on those individuals who choose to leave their societies of origin. The existence value of Elbonian culture is an example of a beneficial externality of Elbonians merely living their lives as Elbonians. The potential migrants are paying the price of preserving their culture for outsiders, and immigration restrictions amount to forcing those migrants to subsidize the rest of the world by maintaining their culture. The fact that it runs against the migrants’ revealed preferences for opting out of their culture suggests this subsidy is bloody expensive. It’s a bitter irony that the high toll exacted from would-be migrants in the form of stifled opportunities will likely not even succeed. Culture will just go on changing anyway.

“It is not a satisfactory solution to Malian poverty if its people should all become prosperous elsewhere” seems an absurd statement at first glance. After all, if Malians really are becoming prosperous, then there is no more Malian poverty and therefore no problem. Of course the implicit comparison is not prosperity-through-emigration versus the present underdeveloped condition of Mali, but instead prosperity-through-emigration versus prosperity-through-national-development. But a Malian can increase his living standards in a matter of months by emigrating. Even under the rosiest imaginings of development economists, an individual Malian would need to wait for decades for his nation to offer him opportunities to achieve prosperity comparable to employment opportunities in the developed world.

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.

But continuing poverty is not the only price being paid to keep the nation together. The cost that often goes unmentioned is the coercion required to prevent people from moving. Even Collier recognizes that a national government cannot ethically restrict emigration of its own people. But if other nations close their borders to migrants for the purpose of preserving the emigrants’ culture, then the unethical restriction on migration has merely been outsourced. From the perspective of the aspiring migrant, it doesn’t matter in the slightest who is behind the guns preventing her from crossing a border. The restriction of freedom is a cost in and of itself.

Loss of indigenous culture is in some cases potentially a real cost of open borders. This should be recognized. But acknowledging this cost leaves one still very far from balancing the high human costs accruing to curtailing the free movement of people.

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