Thursday, December 01, 2005


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
mind-stretching experience.

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

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