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The brain drain

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Unsurprisingly, given its historical tradition of ‘exceptionalism,’ the United States, in contrast to other advanced democracies such as Canada and Australia, takes a restrictive approach to attracting foreign talent. Like green cards awarded on the basis of employment, H-1B visas (temporary work visas for high-skilled positions) are subject to stringent quotas. As a result of this rigid U.S. policy, our economy forgoes the positive effects of skilled immigration on entrepreneurship and employment creation. But, in the case of highly skilled immigrants, the relationship between liberalization of immigration policies and job creation is robustly positive.

The National Foundation for American Policy found that for every H-1B position requested, U.S. technology companies hire an average of five more workers the following year. For technology companies with fewer than 5,000 employees, each H-1B position was associated with increased employment of 7.5 workers. In addition, Bill Gates testified that, “Microsoft has found that for every H-1B hire we make, we add on average four additional employees to support them in various capacities.” And in 2011, the American Enterprise Institute found no evidence that foreign workers hurt U.S. employment; on the contrary, analysis showed that for every 100 H-1B workers added, an additional 183 jobs were created for American workers.

These studies suggest that the foreign-skilled labor force, rather than taking jobs from Americans, creates new job opportunities for U.S. workers. That substitution is unlikely follows from the fact that foreign skilled workers are paid the same as Americans for the same type of job. Many foreign-skilled workers in high-tech fields have training and education that the American workforce lacks.

Nothing is simple when it comes to the issue of high-skilled immigration, though. From a global perspective that extends beyond U.S. interests, there is a moral dilemma: vast areas of the global south, already depleted of valuable resources by the north, are undergoing human capital flight – a “brain drain”—that accentuates their already disadvantaged position in the world. The brain drain harms native populations, which are deprived of necessary services when doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and scientists leave their countries of origin. The dilemma is exacerbated when the question of individual freedom of choice is set beside that of the common good of poor countries. Most of the skilled workers who emigrate do so eagerly, to improve their personal and family prospects. Their home countries don’t always offer them the necessary infrastructure to do research and work they are passionate about. Should we — impartial spectators concerned with global justice — oppose policies that attract foreign talent to the developed world? Should we plug the brain drain?

The answer to this question has to be no, even though there is something ethically dubious about “robbing” poor nations of an opportunity to grow by enticing their brightest and most productive citizens to leave. We may hesitate to restrict emigration because we value individual autonomy and do not want to live in a world where national governments hinder the free movement of persons. But a person’s right to emigrate does not necessarily entail an obligation on any one state to receive that person. The reason a right to emigrate might entail obligations on the part of receiving countries to establish flexible immigration rules is that, in a world of sovereign states where no corner of the earth remains outside of some country’s (formal) dominion, the freedom to move is contingent on the (arbitrary) willingness of receiver countries to maintain open borders – to the extent that doing so does not hinder their survival. This argument also applies to non-skilled immigration.

So if rigid limits to immigration are in tension with individual freedom, why not compensate underdeveloped countries for depriving them of their human capital? This idea is philosophically coherent. After all, the rich northern nations should be held accountable for exacerbating the plight of the resource poor global south by enacting immigration policies that attract foreign talent. The poor countries lose the economically beneficial impact of highly skilled workers on their native economies when such policies are in effect. So how should they be compensated? Although the question is complex, a few quick answers come to mind: financial aid programs, knowledge transfer initiatives, partial debt forgiveness, and direct north-south financial transfers. Unfortunately, although we’re a long way from seriously discussing these options they should not be dismissed. Compensation is founded on sound principles of global justice and does not offend equally important principles of individual freedom (of movement) across nations and continents.

Julia Maskivker is an assistant professor in the Political Science department at Rollins College in Winter Park.