Bryan Caplan  

Emigration and Citizenism

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I still remember watching this interview with Mikhail Gorbachev in my high school journalism class.  When Tom Brokaw asked Gorbachev about Soviet emigration restrictions, the Soviet dictator self-righteously replied
What they're [the West] organizing is a brain drain.  And of course, we're protecting ourselves.  That's Number One.  Then, secondly, we will never accept a condition when the people are being exhorted from outside to leave their country.
This "brain drain" rationale was pervasive behind the Iron Curtain.  From Alan Dowty's Closed Borders: The Contemporary Assault on Freedom of Movement (1989):
Marxist states typically place great stress on rapid modernization and development, and achieving those goals depends on the services of highly trained professionals.  But few groups feel more threatened by Marxist governments than this one.  From a position of privilege and high reward, they are reduced to salaried servants of the state.  The Marxist commitment to egalitarianism undermines the incentive structure that professionals thrive on - and which is usually available in neighboring lands.

Thus, to prevent a brain drain, an open emigration policy might force a state to readjust its wage structure, at a cost to other economic priorities, not to mention ideology.  This was the conclusion, for example, of Zsuzsa Ferge, a Hungarian sociologist who studied the economic impact of her own country's relatively liberal emigration policies: as Hungary began to compete with the Western labor market, it was forced to increase rewards to professionals.  Representatives of Romania and Bulgaria, on the other hand, argue that they cannot afford to match Western salaries, and that, without a restrictive emigration policy, they "would become like Africa." [from Dowty's personal interviews with diplomatic representatives of Romania and Hungary]

To be sure, Communist fretting about "brain drain" seems hypocritical.  If they really cared about national well-being, their first logical step would be to end their brutal dictatorships.  But none of this shows that the Communist arguments against free emigration were false.  Allowing free emigration really could be worse for national well-being - especially if you stop counting your citizens' well-being the moment they jump ship to another country.

Now suppose you subscribe to the political philosophy of citizenism: You think that governments should maximize the well-being of their citizens, with little regard for non-citizens.  Is there any principled reason to reject emigration restrictions?  The citizenist could say, "I favor putting citizens' interests ahead of foreigners' interests, but not some citizens' interests ahead of other citizens' interests."  But immigration restrictions clearly do the latter.  Some citizens greatly benefit from doing business with foreigners; immigration law still tells them, "Tough luck."  In the real world, every citizenist has to make trade-offs between the welfare of different kinds of citizens.  

Question: If citizenism justifies immigration restrictions, why not emigration restrictions?  Or to put it more provocatively, tell me: If Gorbachev supported emigration restrictions after a sincere analysis revealed they advanced for the overall interests of the Soviet people at the expense of the high-skilled minority, is there any reason Gorbachev shouldn't be a citizenist icon for standing up to rootless cosmopolitanism

P.S. I am well-aware that leading citizenist philosopher Steve Sailer admits exceptions to his citizenist rule.  But to the best of my knowledge, he has never enumerated the main exceptions or even suggested general guidelines for making such exceptions.  What we do know is that, in his eyes, even tighter immigration restrictions than already exist are morally unobjectionable.  Status quo bias aside, then, why would the rights of emigrants weigh any heavier on the conscience of citizenist than the rights of immigrants?

P.P.S. If anyone knows a URL for the full Gorbachev-Brokaw interview, please post it in the comments.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Foster writes:

Has anyone else noticed that citizenism is just the invisible hand applied to government?

Professor Caplan defines citizenism as, "governments should maximize the well-being of their citizens, with little regard for non-citizens." The invisible hand is basically that applied to businesses. If governments can maximize everyone's well-being, why can't businesses? But if we go there, we're communists. Weird result, no?

Also, it's not hard to think of an example for which emigration restrictions may be good. For example, Liberia would be a lot better off today if they had not let possibly most of their doctors emigrate. Actually we all may be better off.

As the WSJ notes, "Thus the total number of Liberian physicians in the U.S. is probably about two-thirds the number in Liberia. In addition, Liberian-trained physicians live in Canada, Great Britain and Australia."

Pajser writes:

It is understandable why all Leninist countries, except Yugoslavia after break with Stalin, closed their borders. Leninists believed they are part of the world revolution and victory of that revolution was only important thing. Everything else was irrelevant. Interestingly, Marxists believe that communism is inevitable consequence of the development of the means of the production. If victory is guaranteed, it is even harder to justify ruthless Machiavellian politics than usually.

Immigration is different. I would allow immigration of Tanzanian doctor only if those who are already in almost the worst situation in the world - poor people in distant Tanzanian villages - will not be even worse off. But if I'm Tanzanian, I'd still allow emigration - perhaps not in the middle of unusually dangerous epidemic only. Keeping people inside is slavery. Keeping them out is - state property rights on territory; which is bad (property rights are violent restriction of human freedom), but not nearly as bad as slavery.

Nick Rowe writes:

Bryan: "Now suppose you subscribe to the political philosophy of citizenism: You think that governments should ***maximize the well-being*** of their citizens, with little regard for non-citizens." [emphasis added]

You are implicitly assuming there that citizenism is a utilitarian doctrine. If instead it were about citizens' *rights*, then the right to emigrate would be an important right, especially since it would help protect their other rights.

It is the abolition of borders that would eliminate the right to emigrate across the border. Government would emigrate too, creating One Big Country. The iron curtain would circle the globe. What I am trying to articulate is that there is a sort of fallacy of composition behind Open Borders thinking. If all can migrate, then none can.

David Condon writes:

Foster, to clarify your initial point, are you arguing businesses should maximize the well-being of their customers, with little regard to non-customers? And are you suggesting customers are to businesses as citizens are to governments? Shouldn't citizens then be allowed to choose their government?

David Condon writes:

Just realized should've been shareholders not customers

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Focus on the current citizens is misleading. Nation states exist to further long-term
survivable and flourishing of particular communities. The community can not be reduced to collections of individuals and its good can not be reduced to a sum over individual goods.

Sailer, insistent on individual goods, is on weak grounds. If one starts with individuals, one is bound to end in libertarianism. Only when one starts with an irreducible nation, can one consistently understand the dynamics of existing nations and political communities.

Shane L writes:

If people know that they cannot emigrate and enjoy wealth as "highly trained professionals" abroad, perhaps they won't bother to invest in education and becoming professionals in the first place?

Rob writes:

Bedarz Iliaci:

Nation states exist to further long-term survivable and flourishing of particular communities.

This reminds me of George Dvorsky of io9 who once naively wrote:

Governments exist to serve us.

I think these are memes that help these constructs maintain [the illusion of] legitimacy, and therefore national and governmental agents may have an incentive to create the appearance of fulfilling these functions.

But are they really the historical causes of their existence? And would they stop existing if they dropped these justifications? I don't think so.

John Smith writes:

What a silly question. The answer is so obvious.

Preventing your own people from leaving harms all of your people directly, because their civil rights have been reduced. Whether they are actually worthy people capable of finding a position aboard is aside the point. You are still reducing their options.

Preventing a bunch of strangers from entering does not harm your people directly. Arguably not even indirectly (of great dispute, of course).

Once again, you are determined to ignore the will of the people (with votes) for the will of strangers (without votes). Outrageous!

Robert writes:

The reason that nation states exists is to prevent its people from being attacked, eliminated, and enslaved. It was Stalin's great contribution to his motherland, and he was a horrible person.

On the one hand, as in ancient Rome, the more cosmopolitan states are more prosperous. On the other hand, when the people are the master of the government instead of the government being the master of the people, the people are more prosperous.

There is an issue with “In theory, practice and theory are the same, but in practice, they are different”

What is the value of common stock without voting rights? What happens when a company issues stock of the same quality as already exists in the market? What happens to the value of my voting rights when the country issues voting rights in a preplanned manner in order to disenfranchise a large block of voters based on race, religion, social and economic status? What are the economic cost of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweet? What are the economic costs of corruption? In a lot of ways, corruption was a larger factor in the economic collapse than monetary policy. In might be said, the monetary policy mistakes were in part due to corruption. What role does propaganda play? From my understanding, the message presented to immigrants is different than the message presented in English, is this not correct?

The real risk in my mind is that the world is significantly larger than the United States, and in theory, your position will make the country stronger and more prosperous. In practice, it will leave the prosperity of the majority of the world the same while potentially weakening America’s long term viability.

I appreciate the work you have done on this subject; however, I feel I must same that your logic could be better reasoned if you spent more time on the unseen as well as the seen, empirically verify your underlying assumptions, and put more thought to the practice aspects of will likely happen compared to what you would like to happen.

Floccina writes:
What we do know is that, in his eyes, even tighter immigration restrictions than already exist are morally unobjectionable.

Maybe he believes that they are morally objectionable but supports them anyway because he believes that it will make life better for him and those he cares about.

BTW does anyone know what the USSRs' immigration policy was?

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

CITIZEN is a designation of individual relationship with a collective.

To the extent that relationship is voluntarily chosen and maintained by both the individual and the other members of the collective (accepting that many factors influence those choices; but, on balance, they are voluntary)individual and collective freedom may exist.

To the extent that the collective constrains the relationship individual freedom (and individuality) may be impaired.

To the extent the individual disrupts the relationship determined by the other members of the collective, their freedom (and choices) may be impaired.

These disquisitions, at their base, are really about the issues of individuality and collectivity.

Doug writes:

"To be sure, Communist fretting about "brain drain" seems hypocritical. If they really cared about national well-being, their first logical step would be to end their brutal dictatorships."

There's an analogy with would-be central planners lamenting that hedge funds and social media startups need to be regulated because they're sucking up too many intelligent workers. "Don't you think its a problem that PhDs are designing trading systems instead of curing cancer?"

Well, if you want scientists to work on diseases instead of derivatives, the solution is simple. Pay them more and treat them better to do the former than the latter. Instead socialists want to enforce emigration restrictions between industries, prohibiting people from pursuing their economic self-interest.

Joshua Macy writes:

@John Smith - so, if migration were everywhere illegal because all states made immigration illegal, nobody is harmed... but if it were because all states made emigration illegal, everybody would be harmed? That seems very strange.

I think you're making "citizenship" and "civil rights" do a lot more of the work under the covers than is really justified. What makes the right to emigrate part of the bundle of civil rights, but not the right to offer a foreigner housing or a job? Surely I have the civil right to marry whom I please, room with whom I please, employ whom I please, rent to whom I please, etc. If, say, employing whom I please isn't a civil right then a law that made it illegal for a white person to hire a black person, while still allowing a black person the right to take any offered employment would not impair anybody's civil rights. The justification for the difference between that case and my wanting to employ a non-citizen has to be more than merely a matter of my neighbors having voted on it, no?

Glenn writes:

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Kolya writes:

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E. Harding writes:

I, using utilitarian logic, see emigration restrictions on skilled professionals as much more sensible than immigration restrictions on unskilled labor (although the latter, too, might occasionally be sensible from a utilitarian standpoint). Why would a patriotic skilled professional in the Soviet Union ever want to defect to the Capitalist West? As far as I can see, only for his personal gain, as the West has no special need for him, unlike the Soviet government and the Soviet people, who obviously needed improvements in their nation's human capital. Now, forcibly sending skilled professionals to poorer lands (like Cuba does) might make sense from a utilitarian standpoint. But I find it difficult to see why/how free emigration would.

Christopher Chang writes:

I cannot speak for other restrictionists or citizenists, but I'll elaborate here on a reason why it's clear to me that universalist morals still frequently suggest citizenist-style immigration restrictions.

For starters, I agree that freedom of exit is really important. The question concerns its implementation: does it require open borders *everywhere*? Or does it "just" require defeat of regimes which block exit?

Consider the analogy to employment. We do not require that EVERY other company be willing to hire someone who just left a job. Instead, there is a job market with lots of rejection, and an imperfect safety net which is nevertheless a lot better than nothing. This is essentially what we've had in immigration since the Soviet Union's collapse: different countries have different rules for becoming a citizen (and less permanent forms of immigration), and there are refugee treaties which have prevented a repeat of the Holocaust.

In practice, this framework has yielded far better equilibria than "compulsory open borders" in employment (which has been a part of some communist and socialist experiments). Also see what happened to the City College of New York after it switched to open admissions in 1970. Comments like ignore this track record. 99.9% freedom of exit is way better than 100% if something critical is lost in order to grab that last fraction of a percent.

With that said, I have no objection to *voluntary* open borders. Some companies do succeed at scale with very liberal hiring policies, and there is a niche to be filled today by countries which do the same thing with immigration (the UAE is an example, and those who criticize how poorly it treats its guest workers should build a better alternative instead of forcing the migrants back to even worse conditions). But other companies, such as Apple, couldn't survive that without losing their identity, and I don't think that means Apple's current form should be destroyed. (Incidentally, I strongly dislike "walled gardens", but I claim that my response of releasing lots of my own code under GPL3 is moral, while trying to force Apple's codebase open via government fiat is grossly immoral.) And the history of CCNY demonstrates that misapplication of open borders can rapidly and irreversibly destroy a very high quality institution; this is not just a theoretical harm.

Rob writes:

E. Harding, beware naive utilitarianism: People do not like being treated as slaves. There are all kinds of paradoxical effects from telling skilled professionals what to do at the point of a gun.

Maybe it works and the world becomes better, maybe they hate your guts and start sabotaging you, maybe they work for your system but your system is the one that should lose to a less authoritarian one for utilitarian reasons. You just assume you know all this in advance.

Adam writes:

Surely you must understand why states give more rights to the citizens inside their borders than the non-citizens outside? I understand you don't agree with it but you, being an intelligent person who enjoys the ideological Turing test you must understand it.

Would you not understand why a country club gives the ability of a member to leave while at the same time not give a non-member the ability to join?

John Smith writes:

To Joshua Macy:

No, the harm would be inflicted by other countries upon your own citizens. So, it doesn’t count. Because your citizens are worthless to other countries just as other (countries’) citizens are worthless to your own country within this framework.

The restrictions are applied to the foreign people rather than to the natives, and therefore technically the natives’ rights are not fringed upon. Obviously the natives still end up not being able to trade with the foreign people, but that is because the foreigners are executed by the border guards rather than because the police stops the natives from doing so.

Obviously in the US, many foreign people have already made it past the border. In which case they are criminals and the natives by trading with them are aiding and abetting criminals. Thus the natives are not being restricted from trading with the foreign people in and of itself, rather they are restricted from aiding and abetting crimes against the State by trading with the foreign people.

See? Entirely self-consistent so long as you value the lives of foreigners at zero.

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