The road out of hell

In the FT yesterday, Branko Milanovic suggested that we might be able to increase global migration by reducing the citizenship rights of migrants. This is not a new idea – Lant Pritchett brought it up ten years ago and it is widely practiced by many Gulf states.

Over at Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram made it clear he really doesn’t like this idea, comparing Milanovic’s suggestion to “recreating apartheid” (I suspect the word apartheid will eventually be subject to its own form of Godwin’s law):

Milanovic wants us explicitly to abandon the liberal and democratic principles of legitimacy that those who are subject to the laws of a society should (in time in the case of migrants) get to have the right to make those laws. In doing so, he goes far beyond similar proposals (for example from Martin Ruhs that have been explicitly temporary in nature and have largely focused on labour-market rights. Milanovic’s lack of commitment to the norms of liberal democracy also comes across in the fact that he holds up illegitimate and tyrannical states, such as the Gulf kleptocracies, as models for his proposed policy.

Part of what’s going on here is the economist’s perspective on policy, which just focuses on net improvements in well-being or utility, with income serving as a proxy, and which doesn’t, therefore, see human beings as possessed of basic rights which it is impermissible to violate. Rather, all and any rights can be sacrificed on the altar of income improvement, just in case someone is poor and desperate enough to make a deal (who are we, paternalistically, to stop them?). The road to hell is paved with Pareto improvements.

Let’s be absolutely clear: we are already in hell and we are trying to find a path out of it. International migration restrictions – as they stand – already enforce a global system of apartheid. Most of global inequality in income (and likely in health and happiness) is driven mainly by where  you are born. By preventing someone mired in poverty overseas from moving to a place where they can make a better life for themselves – even temporarily – we are implicitly denying that person the same rights that we enjoy every day (rights that most have us have inherited, not earned). These are also arguments that Pritchett made before.

Human beings have a proximity problem: inequalities in outcomes or rights which are proximate to us (on the right side of an arbitrary national boundary) are weighted much higher that massive, gaping inequalities which are harder to observe because the people bearing the brunt of that inequality happen to live overseas.

We would all agree that a migration system which allows for restricted freedom is a worse solution than a system which allows for the same amount of migration with no restrictions on freedom. But the latter system does not exist, nor has anyone managed to propagate a convincing way to get there. I don’t know if a Milanovic/Pritchett system would work, but I can think of two main reasons why we might not want to consider it:

  1. There is a lower cost path towards a system which does not limit freedom that we can implement sooner.
  2. Adopting a system based on limited citizenship now will somehow make it harder to move to a free system later on.

If Bertram really wants to make a convincing case against the Milanovics of the world, he needs to start by showing us a better road out of hell.

7 thoughts on “The road out of hell

  1. Lee

    April 21, 2016 at 2:40pm

    1. First, could you really not find an appropriate movie photo for “Road out of Hell”? Getting lazy Matt.

    2. Is it true that most health & happiness inequality is between countries rather than within them? I’m not so sure.

  2. Matt

    April 21, 2016 at 6:06pm

    On (1), fair.

    On (2) it is certainly less likely than income. On health, there’s been a broad convergence and a reduction in between-country inequality over the past 25 years. But I’d still wage that, for a lot of outcomes, the variance is going to be explained by cross country differences more than within-country differences.

    For happiness, yeah that’s more of a stretch. Perhaps not.

    Both of these sound testable.

  3. Martin

    April 23, 2016 at 2:14pm

    My 2013 book on this very issue might be of interest:www.priceofrights.com

    The ethics of how to resond to the trade-off are not obvious and need to be discussed explicitly (see ch7 of my book)

  4. admin

    April 25, 2016 at 10:03am

    Thanks Martin – your book has been on my reading list since it came out! Should get around to it…..

  5. Links round-up | The CSAE Blog

    April 25, 2016 at 10:34am

    […] Matt Collin runs Tim close this week, with a piece of rationality shot through with feeling here: he takes Chris Bertram to task on his own criticism of Branko Milanovic’s proposal to increase migration by reducing migrant […]

  6. Nikita Katenga-Kaunda

    May 6, 2016 at 9:15pm

    “Let’s be absolutely clear: we are already in hell and we are trying to find a path out of it. International migration restrictions – as they stand – already enforce a global system of apartheid. Most of global inequality in income (and likely in health and happiness) is driven mainly by where you are born. By preventing someone mired in poverty overseas from moving to a place where they can make a better life for themselves – even temporarily – we are implicitly denying that person the same rights that we enjoy every day (rights that most have us have inherited, not earned). These are also arguments that Pritchett made before.”

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Can’t praise this paragraph enough.

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