Undercover Economist

Don’t fear the migrant

Should we seek to keep the citizens of poor nations trapped in their countries of birth for the good of their fellow citizens?

I have been mourning the loss of a dear family friend: a doctor, trained in West Bengal, who then emigrated to Birmingham and worked all her life in Britain. She died, surrounded by her family, back in Kolkata. The choices she made would probably have been impossible today: the National Health Service now has a code of practice banning recruitment from around 150 developing countries – almost all of them. It also bans recruitment from West Bengal.

It is sad that in all the fuss about immigration, few commentators take the viewpoint of the emigrant, although every immigrant is also an emigrant. (Even in the scholarly economics literature the word “immigration” is four times as frequent as the word “emigration”.) The reason is obvious enough: we view migration by considering what we have to gain, rather than what the migrants might gain.

What the migrants might gain is, of course, a great deal. Migrants receive far higher wages than they would back home. It is possible that migrants are particularly energetic people who would have earned well anywhere – but this effect is probably not the main explanation for the gap between wages at home and abroad. Economists who have studied situations where the right to migrate is assigned by lottery have found little difference between the wages of those who lose the lottery and those who do not apply.

A recent survey by the economist Michael Clemens, of the Center for Global Development, points out that although the question is largely ignored, any reasonable estimate of the economic gains from freer migration would dwarf that of the gains from, say, freer trade – if we include the welfare of the migrants themselves. Clemens points out that allowing some migration from disaster-hit countries such as Haiti or Somalia would be a far more effective way to alleviate poverty than many conventional aid programs.

Clemens has, alas, attracted the attention of white supremacists, but even people with impeccable bleeding-heart-liberal credentials worry about emigration because of the “brain drain” – the harm assumed to be done to poor countries as their doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs abandon them for cushy careers in the west. It is for this reason that the NHS has its recruitment ban.

I am not convinced. Should we seek to keep the citizens of poor nations trapped in their countries of birth for the good of their fellow citizens? Nobody would, for a moment, consider banning ambitious Mancunians or Glaswegians from working in London, purely on the principle that they might do more good in their back home. Outrageous infringements of liberty seem to be acceptable only when applied to foreigners. (Another analogy, inspired by Clemens: would we happily discuss working mothers under the heading of “the love drain”? I hope not.)

The real effects of the brain drain have also been poorly thought through by most of us. The economist Oded Stark points out that if western countries assiduously recruit doctors and engineers from poor countries on comparatively vast salaries, that is a strong incentive to train as a doctor or engineer. The result may be more doctors and engineers in poor countries, even after the migrants have left. And there is some evidence that this is indeed the case. (Robert Guest, the author of a forthcoming book on international migration, points out more nurses leave the Philippines each year than any other country, and yet the Philippines retain more nurses per head than Austria.)

The striking conclusion of Michael Clemens’s research paper is that we know far too little about the effects of emigration. In particular, we have little idea how much emigration is socially, politically and economically possible. But I strongly suspect our fear of the immigrant is hugely overblown. My friend did not just put a few extra pounds in her pocket by moving to the UK: she enriched the lives of her many British friends. We shall miss her.

Also published at ft.com.