Has the era of mass migration come to a close?

Thomas Sowell’s Migrations and Cultures is an excellent book. Whether talking about Indian immigrants in Uganda or Jews or overseas Chinese, Sowell demonstrates page after page how anti-foreign bias combined with standard restrictionist arguments lead to harrassment and intimidation of market-dominant minorities, mostly immigrants and their descendants. And he shows, with one example after another, how these actions ultimately hurt the natives themselves once the market-dominant minorities pack up and leave, or are forcibly expelled.

Given the contents of the book, I furrowed my brow that the most salient review blurb was from US restrictionist (and himself an immigrant from Canada) Peter Brimelow (author of Alien Nation and founder-cum-editor of VDARE). Here’s what the blurb says (emphasis mine):

Thomas Sowell is one of the wonders of the American intellectual world…Not only is the book crammed with detailed research that even experts will find instructive, but it is willing to look unflinchingly at evidence that suggests migration can be bad as well a good — and even that the era of mass migration may be coming to a close.

So I thumbed back to the conclusion of the book. The last few pages of the conclusion seem to be informed speculation about the future on Sowell’s part, rather than a summary of the book’s contents. So, agreement or disagreement with these could be quite independent of agreeing or disagreeing with the historical analysis presented by Sowell. Quoting from the conclusion:

The historic role of migrations in spreading skills, techonlogy, and manpower from where they are abundant to where they are more scarce has been monumental in its consequences. However, such achievements have not come merely from the movement of bodies. It has been the movement of knowledge, of skills, and of technology that has been crucial. What the passage of time and the development of modern technology and instant electronic communications has done has ben to make the transmission of knowledge, skills, and technology less and less dependent on the transportation of bodies — all the while making the transportation so inexpenive so as to permit larger migrations, over greater distances, which may be less and less selective. […] Whatever the empirical facts about the quality of immigrants may be in particular countries in particular years, the transportation of bodies and the dissemination of human capital have become increasingly separable nations,so that the historic role of immigration in advancing nations need not apply to its future role. […] In short, international migrations have tended to become a less and less effective way of transferring human capital, at least as compared to alternatives that have emerged or grown in importance. One alternative way of sharing the human capital of the world has been international trade and the setting up of businesses in each other’s countries. […] Neither technological nor managerial human capital require mass immigration for its diffusion.

I can see that a lot of the paragraphs here would appeal to restrictionists, particularly restrictionists who appeal to the then versus now distinction to explain why immigration worked well in the past but won’t work well today, as well as to people who make the high versus low skill distinction. Nonetheless, I think that Sowell is somewhat off-target here.

First, Sowell, who is often quick to point out that statistical categories are not the same as flesh-and-blood people when doing income distribution analyses, seems to be ignoring this insight in his nation-based analysis of the effects of immigration. By continually talking about whether mass migration benefits nations rather than individuals, he is sidstepping the various compositional effects that confound such analyses. The more appropriate question to my mind is not whether “nations” need more migration but whether people desire, and benefit from, freer migration.

Sowell is right that mass migration is seen less today than in the past. But the fundamental reason is not, in my view, that mass migration is redundant in today’s world of easy technology transfer. The fundamental reason is severe governmental restrictions on immigration. That a lot of “illegal” immigration occurs despite these restrictions is only one sign of the huge pent-up desire to migrate.

The polling data on migration page on this website links to various Gallup and other polls over the years that demonstrate just how many people worldwide desire to migrate. The number stands in the ballpark of 10% of the world population.

Do people have more or less of a reason to migrate compared to yesteryears? The place premium measures the gap between how much the same worker with the same skills can earn in different countries. This place premium continues to be quite huge between the poorest and most developed countries — far huger than the place premium between Europe and the United States during the era of mass migration from Europe to the United States. The evidence based on income per natural suggests that a significant fraction of people from poor countries who escape poverty do so by migrating.

So, both in terms of expressed desires and underlying reasons, there is much reason to believe that the era of mass migration has come to a close only because of the immigration restrictions imposed by governments, not because of fundamental technological changes that render migration redundant.

Further (and this is something that needs to be developed in a separate post or article) the relationship between immigration and trade is complex. Sowell is right that, to some extent, immigration and trade can substitute for one another. But they can also complement one another, as the evidence in Sowell’s own books indicates. Trade can establish links between countries, giving people incentives to migrate to those other countries. Migration can help people develop international links that help facilitate trade-based businesses. Which of the phenomena (substitution or complementarity) is more salient, and how the balance has been changing over time, are both questions that are up for debate. Sowell seems to be of the view that in the modern world, highly selective migration can accomplish the necessary goal of complementing trade and technology transfer. However, as Sowell himself points out, education is a poor measure of skill levels, and in this respect, it’s unclear whether, under severe immigrtaion restrictions, the right set of people are able to migrate (see more about skill levels and innovation at the innovation case for open borders page).

Overall, I think that while there is some important insight in some of these remarks made by Sowell, it is ultimately speculative and should not be construed as a summary of Sowell’s book.

4 thoughts on “Has the era of mass migration come to a close?”

  1. Your generosity to Sowell here is very gentlemanly, but a more dismissive commentary would have been nearer to the truth. Yes, it’s quite clear that government policy, not demand, is the cause of reduced mass migration. Yes, the place premium shows that there are huge gains from transporting bodies around. Sowell’s subtlest claim is that “the transportation of bodies and the dissemination of human capital have become increasingly separable notions.” But the evidence doesn’t support that, at all. For all the ease with which information flows around the world, economic geography is getting “spikier,” economic activity more concentrated, international income gaps as wide as ever, or at best there might have been some slight and very recent diminution.

    1. Actually, I was quite selective in my quotations, i.e., I picked the parts of Sowell’s writing that were most likely to be antagonistic to open borders advocates. It may have been fairer to quote his entire conclusion, but I thought that would be too long to include in a blog post and might run afoul of fair use. If you have the book (and you should consider getting it if you don’t) you can read the full conclusion and make a fairer evaluation of Sowell’s point.

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