Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World

  • Paul Collier
Oxford University Press: 2013. 9780195398656 | ISBN: 978-0-1953-9865-6

In Exodus, Paul Collier's objective is to initiate an evidence-based debate about international migration and debunk the biases — especially among 'liberal thinkers' — that he says make such a debate taboo. Worldwide, about 3% of people live in a country other than that of their birth, but in England and Wales, for example, that proportion is 13% and rising. Collier argues that liberal elites wilfully ignore the views of ordinary citizens, who think that this influx can undermine society and the economy. He provides an analytical framework to account for migration, surveys some of the evidence, identifies supposed intellectual biases and offers policy conclusions.

Controlling the flow of people entering a nation is a key element of migration policy. Credit: JEFF GILBERT/ALAMY

Collier makes many powerful and thought-provoking points accessibly, and migration scholars would mostly agree with his analysis. But his contribution to the debate is weakened by occasional lapses in consistency, citation and tolerance for opposing views (including mine). For example, Collier argues that the policy question is not whether migration is good or bad, but whether a bit more of it is desirable. However, most economists would argue this way too, and Collier himself periodically slips into extremes. For example, he writes that “the obligation to help the poor cannot imply a generalized obligation to permit free movement of people”. Who said that it did? Referring to the migration debate, Collier predicts that the “guardians of orthodoxies stand ready with their fatwas”. It would be a better debate if there were no fatwas, either pursued or perceived.

Considering the host countries, Collier contends that the economic benefits of migration are small and the social costs potentially large. He argues persuasively that when a society has too many incomers, trust is eroded and that this undermines the provision of public goods, including support for society's weaker members. This belief underpins Collier's paean to nationalism as an important, if not vital, cement for societies. Collier justifiably provides a reminder that nationalism need not be militaristic or warmongering.

He also argues that, left unconstrained, migration from poor to rich countries would increase almost without limit, because, as more migrants settle in the rich country, it is easier for others to follow. On this basis, he says that migration must be controlled. Almost all migration scholars recognize this relationship and its implication, so it is wearing that Collier inveighs so frequently against “the open door favored by economists” and “universalist utilitarianism”, which he says favours moving “the entire world population ... to the country in which people were most productive”. Frustratingly, he offers no citation for these views.

International migration moves people from regions of low to high productivity, and it is widely acknowledged that migrants themselves reap almost all the economic benefits through their increase in income. Collier argues that it might be reasonable for a share of these benefits to accrue to host societies, because it is their struggles that have created the high-productivity environments. But he wisely suggests that trying to collect that share would do more social harm than economic good.

The brain drain is vigorously debated among specialists.

Collier contends that the populations of small poor countries would experience major losses from the emigration of skilled workers if immigration elsewhere went uncontrolled. This is further grist to his mill — he believes that rich countries should impose controls partly for the sake of poor countries, and should also pay compensation to those who move. The brain drain is vigorously debated among specialists: almost all recognize the possibility of such losses, but many argue that poor countries make such an ineffective use of skills that the losses are small. For example, most qualified physicians in such countries serve the urban elite and have almost no impact on the health of the poor.

On policy, Collier recognizes that temporary migration programmes have widespread economic benefits. However, citing the example of Turkish people in Germany, he argues that open liberal democracies cannot enforce departure when temporary migrants' contracts end. He accuses advocates of such temporary mobility (specifically including me) of ignoring non-economic aspects of migration and of having a “tin-eared detachment from a workable ethics”.

His recommendations include requiring the return of asylum seekers when their countries stabilize, and granting “the initial status of guest worker” to all entrants (other than to those who join a lottery for permanent immigrant status). Such guest workers would join a queue to become permanent immigrants, but until they gained that status, they would pay taxes, receive no social benefits and have only limited access to public services. If they declined to register for permanent immigration, they could be deported without appeal. This seems more ethical than a formal guest-worker scheme, which requires people to leave when their work contracts expire.

Collier's book offers a feast of ideas. For this I commend it, but the dominance of rhetorical spice over evidence-based nutrition makes the meal rather indigestible.