Hot for International Apartheid


In response to a very Pritchettarian Tim Lee post on immigration, Daniel Larison writes:

The larger question is this: how does mass emigration actually help other parts of the world?  Letting in those who can escape the nightmare is all very well and good, but it is almost certain that the most motivated and most capable will be among the first to abandon their "prisons," as the Free Exchange blogger calls them, leaving their neighbours to endure even greater hardships as conditions continue to deteriorate. 

Well, not quite. Mass migration, as Lant Pritchett has shown, can relieve internal pressure and make life appreciably better for those left behind; the example Pritchett uses is Ireland's recovery after the potato famine. Real wages never fell after the initial gruesome period of starvation, largely because so many people left. The optimal population of a state varies over time, and countries experiencing large negative shocks can benefit from out-migration. Compare Ireland then to Zambia in the age of border control, where real wages continue to fall as population grows. 

That said, it's probably not a great thing for a community to lose its most motivated members. But, this, too, is far more complicated than Larison wants to admit. We don't know nearly as much as he pretends we do about the trade-offs, but we do know that people respond to incentives when they consider whether or not to pursue education. Thus, as the Center for Global Development's Michael Clemens has shown, claims that the U.S. is stripping Africa of health care workers probably have it backward. Health care workers who immigrate to the United States may never have acquired those skills were immigration not an option. The countries Clemens studied didn't suffer from a lack of health care workers, generally; they suffered from the fact that they could not employ the workers they educated. There is no incentive to acquire skills you have no hope of using, and the most motivated people in a community might not be motivated at all absent the hope of exit.

Would it be preferable if the United States refused to employ Filipina nurses, no doubt shutting down most of the country's nursing schools? What about the human capital brought home by return migration, the entrepreneurial skills obtained by a stint in the states, the massive infusion of remittances? 

Larison continues:

Applied domestically, this would be rather like writing off inner cities as hopeless and encouraging those who could "get out" to move to the suburbs, leaving the city centers to deteriorate and collapse even more quickly. 

We can ignore the false choice here, but Larison needs to consider his analogy in the context of his own preferred policy. Applied domestically, the alternate policy would be rather like forcing people to stay in undeveloped inner city ghettos. It would mean telling the children of poor parents that they could never leave the economically backward neighborhood they happened to be born in, even if that neighborhood offered no education or employment opportunities. It would entail prohibiting suburbanites from inviting inner city residents onto their property to perform an economic service.    

Beyond empirical evidence and strained analogies, it's just obviously wrong to consign citizens of poor countries to the prison of arbitrary colonial boundaries. Some nation states aren't viable economies. Romanticizing collective identities won't change that.