Don’t damn the man, migrate away from him


“Sorry Luke, it would frankly be immoral for me to suggest you leave your aunt and uncle’s farm to fight the Empire. Keep your head down and consider moving somewhere a little less Empiresque.”

In a recent blog post, Bryan Caplan goes after the argument that poor people who wish to migrate away from dysfunctional states should stay there and fix their political system.

When I point out that would-be immigrants are trying to save themselves and their families from hellish Third World conditions, my critics often respond, “They ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems!”

For many of the world’s poor, the chances for successful change are slim to none. When compared with the gains from migration, the decision is a bit of a no brainer. Furthermore,  a persons’ decision to migration (flee) should already contain some information about their ability or will to influence their own political system, so these are often the last people who should be sticking around. Given that most of us living in rich countries go out of our way to protect ourselves and our families from unnecessary risks, the suggestion that poor migrants should put themselves on the line is a little unfair.*

Yet Caplan takes what should be a straightforward counter-argument based on the expected returns to political activism and instead tries to moralize it by hatin’ on political activists.

Thus, suppose Jacques the desperate Haitian father has an opportunity to escape to Miami, where he can shine shoes and send money home to feed his kids.  Instead, he chooses to let his kids go hungry so he stays in Port-au-Prince and fights tyranny with political leaflets and soapbox speeches.  Noble?  No more than John.  The righteous man knows that meeting his family responsibilities is more important than playing Don Quixote.

Then he goes after the very notion of activism itself and, in a one-man demonstration of Godwin’s law, manages to link activism with Hitler.

Indeed, triumphant activists routinely give new meaning to the word “tyranny.”  See Lenin, Hitler, and Mao for starters.

Yikes. It’s one thing to point out that staying in Haiti is not always the most cost effective way to improve your life, it’s quite another to condemn those who have what I would describe as “activist preferences.” The decision to stand up to the man isn’t an easy one, nor does it often make economic sense, therefore we should never condemn anyone for failing to stand up against the man when they have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

Yet judging whether or not political activism will be successful is pretty difficult stuff. Actually, I would argue that successful political activism is defined by its unpredictability, which makes it terribly hard to put a normative judgement on. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi which kicked off the Tunisian revolution and possibly the entire Arab Spring made very little rational sense – Caplan would label Bouazizi as irresponsible for the family he left behind when he killed himself.

I agree that it would have been wrong to condemn Bouazizi if he had instead taken a boat to continental Europe, and I would like to live in a world where other people can easily escape, but shouldn’t we also do our best to support those who have revealed a preference for `fighting tyranny?’ While the world would be immeasurably better off with more open borders, achieving that milestone does not permit us to ignore the injustices that remain around the globe, be they political or economic.


 *Although it should be noted that the migration decision, especially if done illegally, can itself be very risky.

One thought on “Don’t damn the man, migrate away from him

  1. Kartik Akileswaran

    February 11, 2014 at 9:39pm

    It might be useful to distinguish between low-skilled, low SES migrants and higher-skilled, higher SES migrants. We shouldn’t pass judgment on either regarding migration decisions, but in all fairness, I think the critique of “they ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems” is usually levelled against the latter type of migrant. Borrowing from Hirschman, these may in fact be the people who have the ability and will to influence their political systems but who may find “exit” more attractive.

    That said, I agree that we shouldn’t blame either type of migrant for migrating (we should welcome it in fact). The moralizing bit in Caplan’s post, however, is bad, and possibly worse than you suggest.

    First, his description of John the activist is extreme—I’m quite sure there are loads of activists out there who take good care of their families. Assuming this to be the case, isn’t this an issue of trade-offs? Who am I to judge whether you should spend a bit more time on your activism vs. on your family?

    Second, it seems a bit odd to toss political activism to the dustbin when Caplan lives in a country that has benefited immensely from numerous transformational social/political movements.

    Third, since when did being an activist drastically increase the probability of becoming Hitler? Talk about succumbing to the slippery slope fallacy…

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