“Don’t let anyone tell you that what’s right is impossible”

Michael Clemens from the Center for Global Development talks about immigration – which he describes as “The Biggest Idea in Development that No One Really Tried“.  In this TED-talk style video, he addresses criticisms of open borders such as the idea that open immigration would impoverish rich countries (it wouldn’t), and that it is politically impossible (so too, once, was the abolition of slavery).

Michael’s approach is an enviable combination of analytical rigour and strong ethicaal principles.  This 25 minute video is a powerful argument for why we can, and should, remove government restrictions on where people can live and work.

6 comments on ““Don’t let anyone tell you that what’s right is impossible””

  1. Great post. Could you address three objections that the video doesn’t:

    1) This would help individuals, but would badly hurt developing countries through brain drain among doctors, teachers, civil servants and entrepreneurs. It essentially suggests that people should abandon their poor country and come to a rich one.

    2) While overall wages of the resident population are unlikely to be greatly affected, the less skilled and lower paid would be significantly worse off – an amplified version of the polish plumbers coming over.

    3) The education of resident children would be detrimentally affected with a rise in the number of pupils who do not have English as their first language (how did US schools cope with this in the 1910s I wonder?)

    Owen replies:

    You should address these questions to Michael rather than me. But very briefly:

    1. Michael has done some very interesting work on this very question. He finds that level of emigration of skilled medical professionals does not affect a country’s capacity to deliver health care. The main reason is that, as people leave these professions, more people are attracted in to them. And of course some countries have become prosperous precisely in large part exporting skilled labour (I’m thinking of Ireland).

    2. I thought Michael did address this. As I understand it, the effects are small even for the low paid native born workers. (Did the arrival of Polish plumbers do anyone very much harm in the UK?)

    3. Presumably the effect on public services could be addressed if the destination country spent a fraction of the economic benefit on improving them.

  2. I agree with much of what he says. Having said that, I readily believe that while his other work is analytically rigorous, this presentation isn’t.

    In particular, the figures showing 100 people out of poverty in home countries and in the US suffer greatly by not considering that many of the people we accept into the US are already skilled and more likely to have been above the poverty line in their own countries as well. It’s not evidence that migration itself did the trick.

    Most of the evidence is supportive, but hardly conclusive.

  3. @Richard:

    These are great points you make, and I agree with Owen’s thoughtful answers. One point I would add is on your #2: Yes, both George Borjas and Giovanni Peri find that the Americans with the lowest education are the ones whose wages are most negatively affected by immigration. However, the Americans with the least education are vastly richer than typical people in developing countries.

    For example, the average income of an American adult high school dropout is US$24,000 per year. Borjas’s and Peri’s estimates say that 20 years of immigration cumulatively lowered the wages of a high school dropout by 8-10%. So preventing *all* immigration for 20 years would raise the income of someone who earns $24,000 a year by around 10%. That same policy would also prevent many millions of people from poor countries, many of whom are forced to live on tiny fractions of $24,000 per year, from experiencing life-changing increases in their prospects. Is *causing* poverty for millions of potential immigrants a legitimate way to slightly increase the living standards of enormously richer people?

    @D. Watson: You are absolutely right that what I show in the numbers for Haiti is correlation, not causation. It is hypothetically possible that many of the Haitians living on more that $10/day in the US would have been living above that line even if they hadn’t left Haiti. In practical terms, however, this is highly unlikely. Less than 0.3% of the Haitian population lives on more than $10/day. The prospects for those people to earn such spectacularly high amounts in Haiti are extremely limited. This is why, as I show in a different part of the presentation, even a Haitian with above-average education (35 year old male with 9 years of schooling) typically experiences an immediate 680% increase in earnings upon arriving in the United States. The prospects for those people to earn so much in Haiti are so limited that the vast majority of those Haitians living at such high incomes in the US would be far below the $10 line if they hadn’t left Haiti.

    Thus your thoughtful point is theoretically right, and it could be of practical importance in some settings, but this is a presentation for a popular audience so my main attempt was to say oversimplified things that are not far from true (since nothing that’s perfectly accurate is ever simple), and the 100-person charts in the presentation pass that test.

  4. This is something I have believed in for some time now. The premise of capitalism is the free (as in unregulated) exchange of money, goods and services. It just so happens that human resources ARE resources from an economical point of view, which means the existing system is biased.

  5. Daniel, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. From an economical point of view, it is indeed questionable to heavily regulate some factors of production and not others. In addition, there is an important ethical point: money, goods, and services have neither welfare nor rights, but workers have both. Our current system assigns welfare and rights to most workers based primarily on where they happened to be born, which is terribly problematic.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and