International Migration: Globalization’s Last Frontier (Review)

Image: taoty / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Jonathon W. Moses is a professor of political science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He completed his university studies in the USA and he has taught at universities in the USA, South Africa and Bangladesh. Besides political science, he has also been teaching such courses as “International Political Economy” or “Open Economy Macroeconomic Management”. International migration is one of his main research interests. Among others, he is the author of a book called “Open States in the Global Economy” and co-editor of “Globalization, Europeanization and the End of Scandinavian Social Democracy?”, and he has published many journal articles.

In this book, Jonathon W. Moses presents his arguments for free international migration that would lead to a more just and efficient world. Such a radical step may seem utopian at the moment, but his ambition is to spark a broader discussion.

Moses starts with a historical overview and argues that (the extent of) the modern state’s control is unique to the current international migration regime and that for most of history, (free) migration has been a part of life. All that changed with the outbreak of World War I and the war restrictions on movement were never lifted afterwards. Thus, while liberalism brought about free flows in goods and capital, controls on migration were (paradoxically) strengthened and began to be perceived as a normal and permanent instrument of sovereignty.

In his view, the strongest argument for free migration is moral (Chapter 4). He points out the social, economic and political inequalities in the world, and the fact that opportunity is distributed by fate and many people are thus “condemned” to “life sentences” in their country of birth. The moral argument has two possible forms: universalistic and egalitarian (free mobility as a universal basic human right) or instrumentalist (free mobility as a means to greater economic and political justice).

Moses’ political argument (Chapter 5) follows up on the moral one: Even if people were given the opportunity to leave (vote with their feet), many of them would not do so, as the cost of exit would still remain high. Nevertheless, the simple threat of exit would increase the bargaining power of individuals and the competition for citizens between states, and would encourage cooperation between states or regions. In this chapter, he parallels the current system of nation states and restrictions on migration with the South African apartheid, which turned out to be “a political system of differentiation, grounded in the concept of nationhood, or autonomous self-development.” (p. 84)

Finally: the economic argument for free migration (Chapter 6). For an estimate of political or economic consequences of open borders, an investigator needs to take into account the level of analysis, the size of migrant stream and the length of the temporal horizon. Moses acknowledges that high-volume migration is costly to developed (receiving) countries and that the short-term economic effects in host and sending countries could be detrimental. However, there are countries that might actually benefit from higher level of emigration, and over the long term, migration will certainly bring economic rewards due to increased productivity and efficiency in the global system. Estimates about the size of such benefits are dependent on unpredictable parameters, and therefore very uncertain. Two points are worth noticing: First, despite brain drain sending countries profit from migration at various levels – through remittances, transfer of skills, international networks, or potential migrants’ motivation to achieve higher education. Second, if migration was free, host countries would save immense amounts of money they currently spend on border controls. At any rate, Moses considers this argument less important than the previous two.

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Moses identifies three main barriers to free mobility: 1. sceptical public opinion in the developed world, 2. public perceptions about the role and nature of the omnipotent nation-state, and 3. conventional wisdom (or “commonsense”). All these obstacles can be overcome, he suggests. The first and third barriers might be diminished by a targeted educational campaign, and the second barrier will likely erode on its own. Free migration would bring benefits to migrants, host as well as sending countries, and also to the whole international system. However, it is a measure “that requires us to broaden the way in which we think about and discuss questions of citizenship, identity and migration.”

National borders and the control of international migration are connected with the creation and existence of the nation state, welfare state, and their security. How could migration be freed while maintaining a welfare state? It is true that it has been made possible in Europe, but it has by no means been easy and it requires broad and deep cooperation among the member states. Those who expect the book to provide them with an alternative view of the current configuration of the world system or to broaden their horizon in this respect, will be disappointed, because Moses states at the end of his introduction: “[W]e are unable to make accurate forecasts about the consequences of such radical changes.” In his book, he does not show HOW to open borders, he presents reasons WHY to do it. He does provide some policy recommendations in the final chapter, though. Regarding the welfare state, Moses presumes that its provision would actually be enhanced in case of free mobility, because states would compete in attracting potential citizens.

Moses vs. Castles

Let us compare Moses’ work with the arguments of Castles in his article “The Factors that Make and Unmake Migration Policies”, where he also considers the possibility of open borders. Castles notes that this vision comes from two “normally very divergent schools of thought: neoclassical economists and left-wing critics of government migration policies.” While the former group believes in leaving regulation to market forces, the latter wishes to enhance migrants’ human rights. Castles concludes that “[o]pen borders is a desirable long-term aim, but there are reasons to think that eliminating all migration control at the present time would be downright harmful.”

Castles raises the following objections:

  • Effectively, there is already free movement for the highly skilled. Rich countries “plunder the scarce human capital of poor countries” and more regulation of highly-skilled migration is needed, perhaps through use of a taxation mechanism. 
    • Moses acknowledges this discrepancy, but considers it unfair. On the other hand, he also mentions tax instruments as a possible remedy for brain drain. (p. 205) 
  • Employers often favor uncontrolled migration precisely because it leads to lower wages for competing local labor. 
    • Moses questions the effect on low-skilled wages in the developed world. He argues that immigrants take jobs that are mostly unattractive to native workers, so there is uncertainty about competition between immigrant and native workforce. Later he admits that the immediate effect on (lowskilled) wages can be negative, but insists that overall wages in the developed world are not (or are even positively) affected. (p. 113-4) 
  • The labor markets of developed countries could absorb only a small proportion of the unemployed or underemployed workers of the South. 
    • Moses tackles this problem as part of the third obstacle – conventional wisdom. He maintains we have no idea of how many people would choose to migrate if given the opportunity, and shows why we might expect relatively few people to leave home. (p. 167) 
  • Labor inflows and pressure on wages in the North could lead to conflict between immigrant and local workers. 
    • Moses proposes policy responses that would deal with such a situation: a targeted educational campaign (informing residents about the enormous individual and moral gains from free migration and educating them about the relatively small impact of migration) and assistance to those domestic workers whose jobs may be threatened (provision of education and training). (p. 200-4) 
  • Open borders would eliminate the distinction between refugees and economic migrants. 
    • Moses does not address this issue. However, he believes that free migration and the option to “vote with feet” would undermine the undemocratic regimes, so we may presume that the number of refugees should decrease as a result. 
  • The elegant simplicity of the open borders slogan is deceptive, as it would create new problems (it could lead to an anarchic situation in which the weakest would be even more disadvantaged). 
    • Moses believes that free migration would encourage intergovernmental and interregional cooperation. 
In this respect, it seems that Moses was genuinely able to respond to most concerns associated with the idea of open borders. He builds his arguments in a logical and persuasive way and he refers to well-established sources. However, he says in the preface: “I hope to present the disparate arguments in a way that is accessible to the general reader.” (p. xii) And he really does, which means, however, that many issues are just roughly sketched, while a scholar – or a student – would appreciate details regarding theories, models or empirical studies. Also his expressive language and extensive use of numbers seem to target emotions rather than reason.

Image: xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
His approach is strongly influenced by economics (presumably, due to his other research areas of interest), even though he presents the economic argument for free migration as the weakest one. He applies an economic model even when developing the political argument, which seems to be an arguable issue. It is difficult to imagine that a sole threat of exit of citizens would force states into competition for citizens or a significant change. If he acknowledges that presumably only a small part of the world population would actually migrate if they had the chance, and if we assume that a nation state would be aware of that – then were would any pressure come from?

Particularly missing was any suggestion how a host country would cope with an influx of immigrants and their integration into society. Moses states that we need to rethink such concepts as identity and citizenship, and he perceives culture as something evolving – as a process, not a state. However, when talking about the integration of immigrants, he uses the word “assimilation” and seems to assign all activity and changes to the immigrants (civic courses, language proficiency tests, while restricted access to welfare rights and nation-based citizenship). He explains: “By employing more of these sorts of education and assimilation policies, developed states can assuage citizen fears about security threats and/or cultural inundation.” (p. 201) As a matter of fact, this attitude reflects the current tendency in the European Union, but seems to be a little out of sync with his previous moral claims, especially when he admits that developed countries NEED immigrants because of the aging of their societies.

Wright (2008) also agrees that Moses’ policy recommendations are bizarre, because they “seemingly contradict his call for open borders and his critique of monoculturalism and fears of “flooding” by migrants.” She observes that “he wants open borders while still rescuing the nation and exclusive citizenship”. Furthermore, she identifies a major weakness of the book in lack of “conversation with any of the relevant movements (or academic literature they have inspired)” and also criticizes it for being “conceptually flabby, [with] a number of the arguments […] based on sketchy, inaccurate, or out-ofdate empirical research or observations.” She concludes that those interested in the politics of open borders should start with “Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls” by Teresa Hayter, “No One is Illegal” by Steve Cohen, “Rejecting Global Apartheid” by Nandita Sharma, or the manifestos of the French san papiers.

Personally, I found a couple of the points he raises new and interesting. For example, his critique of the morality of citizenship, pointing at the fact that considering the size of current states, most of the citizens are actually strangers, and drawing the line limiting solidarity is arbitrary. This book turned out to be insufficient for better understanding the alternative scenario of open borders. Therefore, I will need to explore the topic further, most likely starting with one of the above mentioned books.


  • Castles, Stephen. “The Factors That Make and Unmake Migration Policies.” International Migration Review 38, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 852-884. 
  • Jonathon Moses – personal page. Norwegian University of Science and Technology. http://www.svt.ntnu.no/iss/Jonathon.Moses/Personal/index.html. [accessed 25. 2. 2010 16:23] 
  • Moses, Jonathon W. International Migration: Globalization's Last Frontier. Zed Books, 2006. 
  • Wright, C.. "Challenging States of Illegality: From "Managed Migration" to a Politics of No Borders." Review of Jonathon W. Moses, International Migration: Globalization’s Last Frontier (London: Zed Books 2006). Labour no. 62 (October 1, 2008): 185-198.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment! Děkuji za komentář!