Five Puzzles and a Solution for the “Brain Drain” Debates

I just submitted the proofs for The Ethics and Politics of Immigration which will be published this fall by Rowman and Littlefield International.  

My contribution to the volume is a chapter called “Methodological Nationalism and the ‘Brain Drain’”. It brings together  two topics I’ve written on separately in the past (e.g., an earlier blog post on how methodological nationalism affects writing on the ethics of immigration, a forthcoming paper in Political Studies Methodological Nationalism, Migration, and Political Theory,” and a paper in the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy Reframing the Brain Drain”).
“Methodological Nationalism and the ‘Brain Drain’” attempts to explain a puzzle: why have scholars devoted so much energy to condemning skilled emigration and to advocating its restriction when there isn’t much strong evidence that “brain drain” – i.e., skilled emigration, usually from the poorer to richer regions – is in fact a major cause of poverty and slow development? “Brain drain” seems to me the sort of “problem” that needs dissolving – we need to explain why it is not a moral problem at all.
There are five puzzles about the “brain drain” discourse.
First, the very term “brain drain” (which was originally used to condemn British medical school graduates who moved to the United States) is pejorative. The hydraulic metaphor suggests that brains being washed down the drain. 

The harmfulness of skilled migration is assumed, not argued for (in fact, many political theorists posit harmfulness for the sake of argument). Michael Clemens has recommended the more neutral alternative “skill flow”, but this has yet to catch on.
Second, though political theorists and ethicists are convinced that emigration (especially of health workers) causes significant harms, the empirical literature is much more equivocal and in some cases suggests emigration brings modest benefits through remittances, circular migration, brain gain (through incentives to acquire higher education), transnational businesses set up by migrants, etc. Moreover, there is very little evidence that skilled migration is the cause of extreme poverty or of poor development (in fact, in many cases people leave because of poverty and lack of opportunities).
Third, theorists are quick to assume emigration is at least prima facie morally wrong. Skilled migrants, especially if they received public education, are thought to be shirking on a duty to their community. (Authors such as Michael Blake, Philip Cole, Javier Hidalgo  and Fernando Tesón have disputed this, but they have done so largely in response to the alleged prima facie moral wrong, allowing people advocating restrictive emigration controls to set the agenda.)
Fourth, the focus on migration – especially proposals to restrict migration – is puzzling giving that poverty and development are caused by many factors (e.g., institutions as the rule of law, secure property rights, infrastructure, democracy, etc.). Migration is at most a contributing cause and possibly not a major one. Migration needs to be analyzed as a component of development, not in isolation.
Finally, there is no credible evidence that coercively restricting emigration can actually reduce poverty or cause development. (I show this in more detail in my forthcoming response to Gillian Brock and Michael Blake‘s recent book.)  Advocating emigration restrictions without evidence is particularly alarming given the widespread recognition of emigration as a human right.
The focus on “brain drain” may be explained by the cognitive bias of methodological nationalism that privileges the nation-state as the unit of analysis. Methodological nationalism is the result of the widespread complicity of social sciences with nation-building projects and the reliance on national databases for much research. It involves three biases: political nationalism in which people have one (and only one) set of political allegiances and duties; economic territorialism which places distributive justice within the confines of the nation-state; and sedentariness which treats migration as pathological and needing justification.
How would people befuddled by methodological nationalism to react to skilled residents leaving for economic opportunities? Sedentariness would see migration across state borders as needing moral justification. (It would also ignore movement within territories despite the fact that internal migration raises many of the same issues.) Economic territorialism would discount any benefits people receive outside of the nation-state and ignore benefits from transnational connections. The commitment to political nationalism would lead them to see emigration as a refusal to serve their country. As a result, we could expect them to see migration as morally questionable, to treat emigration as an economic loss, and see emigrants as traitors. In short, we should expect them to treat “brain drain” as a significant moral problem.
In contrast, my view is that we should reject sedentariness and consider migration as part of the human condition. Solutions to poverty and development should treat migration as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Furthermore, we can’t expect development to be something we can accomplish within the confines of the nation-state. The “brain drain” metaphor invites states to turn inward and to compel people who wish to leave to stay and serve their country. In contrast, we need to recognize that nation-states are interdependent and borders are necessarily porous. We need institutions that take advantage of interdependence and support migration as strategy to escape from poverty and violence.
In 1979, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote:
Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good? (The Nature of Mass Poverty, cited in Philippe Legrain’s power Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them)
The “brain drain” literature devoted to explaining why people should not be permitted to leave their countries is an example of this perversity in the human soul. If I am right, it is partly a result of methodological nationalism.


  1. Very interesting. Educated Canadians used to emigrate to the US in large numbers until the mid 2000s. Its slowed down somewhat in the past 10 years but it definetly impacted on the Canadian economy. I look forward to release of this book.


  2. Thank you! We may see educated Americans (and returning Canadians) from the opposite direction in the coming year, depending on the result of the Presidential election…


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