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  • Comment and Discussion
  • Gary Burtless

Gary Burtless: The papers in this volume emphasize cross-border movement of people rather than goods and services. The essay by Devesh Kapur and John McHale asks whether cross-border migration can and should be an alternative route to raising the incomes of people who now reside in poor countries.

Lant Pritchett's paper in this volume suggests that the elimination of cross-border barriers to migration can contribute to the equalization of regional incomes in the barrier-free zone. I think his evidence is persuasive in showing that cross-regional differences in average income are much narrower where the legal impediments to migration flows are small. Inward and outward migration makes it possible for regional income differences to shrink in a way that is harder to achieve solely with free cross-border movements of tradable goods and services.

Comparing the Dakotas in the 1920s or 1930s with the Dakotas today, one would not claim free migration has been an engine of economic growth or development. On the other hand, it is hard to disagree with Pritchett that free migration has prevented Dakotans' relative incomes from falling as fast as would have been the case if all of them had been fenced in on the short-grass prairie.

It may have been a mistake for nineteenth-century Europeans to try to make a living in semiarid grasslands, but given the technology and agricultural prices of the time, the settlers probably enjoyed levels of real income that compared favorably with incomes obtainable elsewhere in the North Atlantic economy. Unfortunately for residents in Divide, Burke, and Mountrail Counties, North Dakota, those days are past. Laborers can now make a better living in places that in the late nineteenth century had much worse prospects than did the northern prairies—places like the Carolinas, Georgia, and south Florida.

The message of Pritchett's paper is that, while cross-border mobility may not be an engine of development in lagging areas, it is a driver of cross-region [End Page 173] income equalization. Cross-border mobility has been good for Dakotans, whether they left or stayed in the Great Plains.

The paper by Kapur and McHale makes another point. Cross-regional income differences are not only a by-product of economic shocks, like the ones that drained comparative advantage out of the northern prairies. Persistent income differences are also produced by regional and national differences in institutions. I would add they are also the result of differences in social norms, including trust and honest dealing in the market place. Unlike tradable goods and services, which in theory can flow freely across national boundaries, institutions and social norms are pretty much stuck in place. If you want to change institutions or norms, you essentially have two options. You can make revolution where you live. Or you can move someplace else. From the perspective of an individual, the second option is much easier to accomplish than the first.

We come now to the modern nation-state, which regards cross-border mobility with deep suspicion. Some countries make it hard for their own citizens to leave, and almost all countries place restrictions on the entry of strangers. I cannot think of a single democracy that prevents its free citizens from leaving, but every modern democracy with the power to do so polices its border to keep the door closed on undesired aliens. "Undesired" for many countries simply means that the entrant wants to stay awhile and make a living. Most countries are happy to entertain well-heeled tourists, the idle rich, and carefully vetted students. They are less happy accepting foreigners who want to dig ditches, pick up garbage, build cars, or compete with their own professors, accountants, and plumbers. Rich democracies do not make a big distinction between migrants who want to work for a few years and those who want to stay indefinitely. Both kinds of immigrants are unwelcome.

The wide adoption of barriers to free entry raises the question of their moral legitimacy. Kapur and McHale summarize the debate between political philosophers who argue for different weighting schemes to take account of the interests of citizens and foreigners. Some theorists...


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pp. 173-185
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Archived 2012
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