Tag Archives: Exodus

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.

Response to Paul Collier: Chapter 2

(This post is part of a series in response to Paul Collier’s Exodus. See my response to Chapter 1.)

Chapter 2 of the migration-skeptical economist Paul Collier’s Exodus is entitled “Why Migration Accelerates,” but he starts by explaining the wealth and poverty of nations. The way he does so sets the stage for serious doubts about the beneficence of migration. He summarizes the state of development economics as follows:

When development economics was in its infancy, the standard explanation for the astounding gap in income was the difference in the endowment of capital. Workers in high-income countries were more productive because they had so much more capital with which to work… [But] capital… can no longer be seen as the primary cause of… poverty; something else must jointly account for their lack of capital and their poverty. Poor choices in economic policy, dysfunctional ideologies, bad geography, negative attitudes about work, the legacy of colonialism, and a lack of education have all been proposed and investigated as explanations…

Increasingly, economists and political scientists have coalesced around explanations that focus on how the polity is organized: how political interest groups shape long-lasting institutions that thereafter affect choices. One influential line of argument is that the key initial conditions for prosperity are those in which it is in the interest of political elites to build a tax system: historically in Europe they needed revenues to finance military spending. In turn, a tax system gives a government an interest in enlarging the economy, and so induces it to build the rule of law…

A related line of argument is that the key institutional change is the shift in political power from predatory elites bent on extracting revenues from the productive population to more inclusive institutions that protect the interests of the productive. In an important new study, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which power shifted from king to Parliament, was the first such decisive event in world economic history, unleashing the Industrial Revolution and opening the path to global prosperity.

Alas, this may be an accurate summary of the state of development economics, but it makes me want to cry. The study to which Collier refers, Why Nations Fail, is one of the most over-rated books I’ve ever read. It’s fatally unrigorous, equally destitute of formal theory and econometrics. A naïve view of the beneficence of democracy has long since been ripped apart by public choice economics, yet Acemoglu and Robinson revive it in the crudest form. People good, elites bad. The book is somewhat persuasive via selective anecdotes if you’re willing to swallow its bizarre terminology, e.g., “inclusive economic institutions” means protection of property rights, even though property rights consist precisely in the right to exclude others. All in all, I tend to think development economics peaked with the empirical work of Jeffery Sachs in the 1990s, and it’s been downhill from there. Daron Acemoglu, in particular, has been a disaster for the field. Honest empirical work on the democracy => growth causal link suggests that the effect is basically nil. But Acemoglu and Robinson’s tendentiously fact-packed and conceptually confusing tome has given development economists a pretext for taking a more politically correct view.

In spite of my dismay at his embrace of Acemoglu, I wouldn’t wholly deny Collier’s claim that national wealth depends on institutions and on a country’s social model, and he is certainly right that “democratic political institutions only function well if ordinary citizens are sufficiently well informed to discipline politicians.” In fact, it’s a bit of a mystery why democracy works even in the mediocre fashion that it does work, in view of rational voter ignorance, Arrow’s impossibility theorem, and other public choice insights, and I think the explanation of the mystery has a lot to do with overlapping webs of altruism among fellow nationals. That’s why ethnic fragmentation in a democracy can lead to disaster: each side cares only about its own, and elections become a contest to grab the spoils of office. But never forget this: open borders does not mean open citizenship. It’s fine to let people come and not let them vote.

Collier writes that “many of the rules that govern economic behavior are informal, so the analysis [of the determinants of wealth] can be extended beyond institutions and narratives to social norms.” Yes, social norms can facilitate economic cooperation. Yes, immigrants may not share the social norms that enable natives to cooperate. But it does not follow that immigrants will undermine economic cooperation among natives. After all, if immigrants don’t share certain social norms that make certain kinds of economic cooperation among natives possible, natives can simply go on cooperating among themselves in the ways that require those norms, and not with natives. Does that sound like reprehensible discrimination? If so, I’m OK with that, but I don’t really think discrimination is involved here.

Here is the key question: How frequent, and how important, are trust-based transactions with total strangers randomly selected from the resident population? If the answers are “frequently” and “very important,” then Collier has good reason to worry about immigration. If much of our prosperity depends on our being able to bump into random people on the street and do big deals with them that aren’t adequately covered by contracts but involve major reliance on shared social norms, cultural understanding, and character-based trust, then letting the native population be greatly diluted by a large influx of foreigners from countries with dysfunctional social models really might impoverish us.

But I think the answers are “pretty infrequent” and “not very important at all.” Continue reading Response to Paul Collier: Chapter 2

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.

Response to Paul Collier: Chapter 1

Paul Collier’s Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World is probably the best book on migration from the restrictionist side that currently exists. Though, that is not saying much. It is pretty strong on the economics, and while I find Collier’s ethical attitudes weird, repugnant, and indefensible, they serve as a useful window on the way a lot of people think. Exodus is a refreshing contrast to books like Victor Davis Hanson’s Mexifornia: A State of Becoming. The arguments in Hanson’s book are too thoroughly flawed to be answered. You’d have to rip them to shreds, almost sentence by sentence, to avoid leaving the impression that anything in them is valid. Any reader who would be a worthy interlocutor in a learned conversation would have seen through books like these. My advice to writers like Hanson is to read Collier’s book and spend a couple of weeks contemplating its intellectual merits, and then ask themselves seriously whether they can emulate them sufficiently that their future writings will be net positive contributions to public debate. If Collier sets the standard that future restrictionist writings will be expected to live up to, the quality of public discourse about immigration will be vastly improved.

Interestingly, Exodus is responding in part to open borders as a political cause, even if it’s a cause that his implicit interlocutors don’t usually embrace explicitly. Whereas others will speak loosely of “the open borders lobby” as an epithet to characterize mainstream people who, in fact, want a lot of immigration restriction, Collier is a development economist who has some idea what real open borders would mean, and knows that there is a case for it. He seems to know about the double world GDP literature. So far, the debate has been conducted within the restrictionist end of the spectrum, with advocates of more migration sometimes mistaking themselves for open borders advocates because they’re naïve about how radical open borders really is. Collier thinks about migration in the context of the global struggle against poverty. He doesn’t pretend the rest of the world isn’t there. He doesn’t adopt a principle of moral indifference to the rest of mankind. That’s a big improvement over previous restrictionist literature.

At present, then, Exodus is the argument to beat on the question of open borders. For that reason, I thought it deserved, not just a book review, but a thoroughgoing engagement with the argument. That said, Collier gave me very little reason to change my mind about supporting open borders, though he might have convinced me to shift my position on a few aspects of the question in subtle ways. There are two main reasons that Collier is unconvincing. First, he has the wrong ethics: he knows about “utilitarian universalism” but is constantly engaged in inadequately motivated attempts to substitute manifestly inferior ethical ideas. Second, his policy imagination is very deficient. My greatest regret is that Collier doesn’t engage with DRITI. Again and again, I found myself saying, “Yes, that’s a problem, but DRITI solves it.”

Chapter 1 sets the stage for Collier’s book with a lot of reflections on the peculiar character of the public debate about immigration. For example, he writes that… Continue reading Response to Paul Collier: Chapter 1