Four cheers for the brain drain
I can understand pure protectionism more easily. That is selfish and
timid, but at least it's not disguised as altruism. But a lot of the
moaning about the "brain drain" from east European countries like
Latvia, Lithuania and Poland makes out that it is having a dreadful
effect on these poor post-communist countries (for which read
"aboriginal reservations"). The natives, so this patronising argument
goes, would be so much happier living their traditional lifestyle
(muddy, cold, vodka-soaked) than being spoiled by exposure to the
temptations of western culture.
Instead of celebrating the marvellous opportunities that migration in
a united Europe presents, the old rich countries are pretending that
it's a disaster. How dare those funny little people with their
incomprehensible languages search for a better life elsewhere? How
dare they respond to market signals that tell them that their labour
is more valuable abroad than at home? How dare they try to learn new
skills? They should stop having ideas above their station, and instead
stay at home and go folkdancing in those picturesque felt boots, and
wait gratefully for the nice new roads that the rich world is going to
give them later in the century.
In theory, of course, migration combined with bad government can make
a country collapse. Zimbabwe is a good example. There may be some sign
of that in the more benighted bits of central Asia (I am sure that
anyone who can leave Turkmenistan has done so). But what's happening
in the post-communist countries of eastern Europe is quite different.
For a start, the current wave of migration is quite small. Many more
people moved immediately after the collapse of communism: Jews,
Russians and Germans shifted around in their hundreds of thousands.
But this was less politically sensitive. Germany, albeit not very
enthusiastically, feels that it has to be the ethnic homeland of all
Teutons, however tenuous their connection. Israel feels the same about
Jews (who in some cases got their Israeli passports and moved on).
Russians in the former Soviet empire were welcome home, regardless of
whether they were really persecuted, or just unable to cope with the
end of their imperial privilege.
The difference now is that the migration is economic, not political,
and it's much more short-term. People are going abroad and trying
their luck. Sometimes it doesn't work out. Qualifications may be
unrecognised, or employers unscrupulous. But it's not the end of the
world: if Greece is no good, try Italy. If Britain is overcrowded,
there's Ireland. If nothing works, then there's a bus back home. And
if it does work, the pay-offs are great: money earned can be capital
for a business or pay for education, or a better house. Simply seeing
how a hospital, farm or office in another country works is a
In short: free trade in people, as in goods or services, matches wants
and preferences precisely, creating more winners than losers. True,
spending long periods abroad is not ideal for marriages, or for
parenting, or for caring for elderly relatives if people. But if
staying put means rotting your life away with ill-paid, boring work,
that's not exactly ideal either.
Some east European employers are complaining. Their nice pool of cheap
labour is indeed draining away. But if they want to tempt the migrants
back, they'll have to work at it, by offering better pay and
conditions, and raising productivity through better management and
more modern equipment. Help! At this rate, those muddy aborigines may
end up richer than us.
Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Four cheers for the brain drain
Restaurant critics give Estonia three stars
By Edward Lucas
In most of the countries I cover, the prime minister lives in a
bubble, travelling in a large black shiny car from one well-guarded
location to another, surrounded by obsequious advisers basking in his
If he goes to a restaurant at all, it is a glitzy one with a private
room. If the bill is paid at all, it is certainly not something that
bothers him directly.
That's certainly true in Belarus, which I have just been discussing at
an excellent conference organised by the Open Estonia Foundation (part
of the Soros philanthropic empire).
I follow Belarus fairly closely (in so far as I can without being able
to go there), but I was struck by the fierce new rules on internet
access, which will deprive non-governmental organisations of their
The draft new law on subversion threatens hefty prison sentences for
crimes such as "discrediting Belarus in co-operation with
foreign-financed organisations and the mass media".
But outside intervention will at best have a marginal impact. The real
problem is the deep Sovietisation of Belarussian society, which has
atomised and demoralised it to an extent unseen elsewhere in the region.
The building blocks of democratic change - impatient middle classes,
patriotism and religion - simply don't exist. So the most important
thing is to do no harm.
A lively debate about economic sanctions ended with a consensus (I
think) that a Soviet-style economic collapse was not going to happen,
and that making Belarus poorer and more dependent on Russia was
unlikely to stoke pro-western and democratic feelings.
The conference's high quality made up for the fact that my other
plans, to see some Estonian policy wonks, had been ruined by the trip
of my fellow-countryman, Tony Blair. His heavily guarded convoy of
limousines had brought traffic to a standstill for large chunks of the
day and the people I most wanted to meet were too busy, either because
of him, or because of the disruption caused.
But late in the evening I got a message that some government advisers
were at a restaurant and I was welcome to join them. That was nice
enough: they might have had enough self-important British visitors for
As we chatted about Russia's slide to autocracy, the psychological war
it wages against the Baltics, and the strange and dangerous way in
which Western Europe seems to ignore this, a couple more people turned
up, pulling up chairs to the table, sitting down and tucking into the
wine and tapas.
They included the Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. I was
impressed with four things. First, he was not spending time with a
hand-picked group of top policy-advisers for a high-powered
discussion, but hanging out with a rather random bunch ranging from
very senior to rather junior, just to chew over the events of the day.
Second, the conversation flowed naturally. I heard nobody laughing
loudly at the boss's jokes, or falling silent when he spoke. Third,
the other customers in the (very unpretentious) restaurant, and the
staff, showed not the slightest bit of surprise. Fourth, before Ansip
left, he made a point of checking that somebody was dealing with the bill.
I told him how impressed I was, and why. "Estonia's like that," he
replied. "Some German tourists asked for my autograph in a restaurant
recently, just because they were so surprised that I would eat there
like a normal person."
Sadly, I can't imagine this happening in Britain with Tony Blair any
more than it would in Belarus with Alexander Lukashenko. Lucky Estonia.
# Edward Lucas is Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The