The case for freedom of movement

In Blog by Philippe Legrain0 Comments

The single most important determinant of people’s life chances is not how talented they are or how hard they work, it’s where they were born. A bright, enterprising, hard-working woman born in an African village is likely to lead a worse life than a lazy dimwit born in North America, Europe or Australia.

Migration can change that. In fact, allowing people in poorer countries to move to richer ones with more capital, more advanced technologies and better institutions – like the rule of law – can not only transform the lives of those who move, it can swell the size of the world economy, because it boosts productivity. Even a slight easing of immigration controls can make a big difference – and allowing people to move freely could double the size of the world economy, as The Economist pointed out recently.

As Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development has observed, not allowing people to move is like leaving trillion dollar bills on the sidewalk (pavement). Nigerian labourers who move to the US can expect to earn 1,000% more. In their book, “A radical case for open borders“, Bryan Caplan and Vipul Naik of George Mason University argue that “Making Nigerians stay in Nigeria is as economically senseless as making farmers plant in Antarctica.” And life in the US is much safer too.

Allowing people to work wherever they like does not mean giving everyone who comes the right to vote, let alone abolishing nation-states; on the contrary, the aim is to extend the benefits of well-functioning ones to outsiders. “It is very hard to transfer Canadian institutions to Cambodia, but quite straightforward for a Cambodian family to fly to Canada”, as The Economist puts it.

The big question is: how many people might move? And might so many move that societies collapse? It may seem like common sense that everyone in poor countries would up sticks if they could. Yet in practice the ties of home and habit are strong, and surprisingly few want to take the risk and incur the emotional and other costs of moving. And where people have a choice, most move only temporarily.

In the EU, where citizens can move freely across 28 countries, less than 5% of the 100 million people in poorer east European countries have moved, even though wages in Stockholm are a multiple of those in rural Romania, as I pointed out in a talk on open borders at the Sydney Festival of Ideas. Indeed, since 1986 the citizens of the Pacific islands of Micronesia have been allowed to live and work without a visa in the US, where income per person is roughly 20 times higher. Yet two-thirds remain in Micronesia.

Paul Collier, a development economist who has written an ill-informed book on migration called Exodus, argues that the problem with migration is that people from poor countries bring their “inferior” cultures with them. It is often argued, for instance, that because Greek institutions tend to be corrupt, its people are too. Yet in practice migrants from Greece behave very differently in the US or the UK than they do in Greece. And while, of course, people bring some of their culture with them, they also adapt to their new home. Indeed, there is no evidence that migrants from war-torn, gangster-ridden or corrupt countries are more likely to commit crimes than locals; on the contrary, they are typically less likely.

Might migrants bring increased terrorism though? Clearly some migrants may be terrorists, as indeed may some travellers, business visitors and locals. Yet a study of migrant flows across 145 countries between 1970 and 2000 by Vincenzo Bove of the University of Warwick and Tobias Böhmelt of the University of Essex found that migration in general tended to reduce terrorism, in part because it boosts growth.

As previous posts I have written for OPEN have pointed out, herehere and here, migration also tends to benefit, not harm, the economic prospects of local people.

It’s striking that while many people are fearful about free movement, many Britons, especially young people, are worried about losing their free-movement rights after Brexit. The ability to move freely (at least around Europe) is not just something that poorer people value; it’s something that people in a prosperous and safe place like Britain care deeply about too.

While a narrow majority of Britons voted to leave the EU on a false prospectus last year, often because of a desire to control immigration, polls shows that most people aren’t willing to suffer any economic loss to cut migration – which they inevitably would. A majority prefer to stay in the EU single market with free movement than to curb EU migration and be poorer as a result of leaving the single market.

Global free movement is an ideal to work towards; in the future people will wonder why countries today increasingly deem it unacceptable to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexuality and much else, but just fine to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born.

And right now, keeping free movement with the EU ought to be a priority for British people.

OPEN’s mission is to defend and advance open liberal societies. If you read anything particularly good that is relevant to our work, please let us know by emailing info@opennetwork.net. And if you have something interesting and relevant to say and would like to write for our blog, please get in touch too.

Thank you, and have a good week.

Philippe