Let Haitians Vote with their Feet

Stanford economist Paul Romer suggests an overlooked strategy for helping Haitians – letting them move abroad to countries with better political and economic institutions:

Even if the motivation is humanitarian, letting a military intervention morph into a long-lasting occupation in some part of a country would risk the kind of violent opposition that colonialism generated in the past. There is no reason to take this risk. We should retain the current strategy. Military interventions should involve the shortest possible duration, should be used only to establish the necessary minimum of legitimate governance, and should not impose irreversible commitments on a nation.

However, we must recognize that this strategy, by itself, will not bring good governance or rapid economic growth anytime soon. It is the strategy that has been followed in Haiti for decades, to little good effect. It is the strategy that left Haitians in a position so precarious that an earthquake killed many tens of thousands.

There is a natural complementary approach that is a much better bet than giving colonialism another chance—letting Haitians migrate somewhere with better governance and rules. This is the surest answer to the question posed in the beginning. It can give them access to the urban infrastructure, buildings, equipment, and the know-how that can support jobs in areas like garment assembly.

Competitive pressure from emigration might also speed up progress toward better governance in Haiti. Demonstrated successes for Haitians who live together in other places with better rules might offer a model for reform that people in Haiti could follow. Even then, good governance may not emerge there. But if there were places where all Haitians could go, no one would have to be trapped by this failure.

As I have argued in my academic work and elsewhere, “voting with your feet” is a powerful tool for helping the poor and disadvantaged improve their lives and choose the government they wish to live under (e.g. here and here). Many Haitians have already transformed their lives by moving to the United States and other developed countries. Undoubtedly, many more would do so if given the chance. And, as Romer points out, migration puts competitive pressure on governments to improve their policies and promote economic growth at home; growth is also aided by the remittances emigrants send to relatives who remain at home. Haiti is one of the poorest and worst-governed nations in the world, so emigration from that country creates truly enormous gains for those who leave, as well as their relatives who may remain.

I’m sure some will argue that Haitians should be forced to stay in their country and work to improve their own government. However,as Romer points out, both Haitian reformers and numerous foreign interventions have tried to do just that for decades, with little or no success. Perhaps the present occupation by US and UN forces will work better than previous efforts along the same lines. I am not as pessimistic about the ability of intervention to improve governments as Romer is; however, Haiti is clearly an unusually difficult nut to crack. The success of this latest effort at good governance is far from guaranteed. If I were a Haitian, I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on it. Actual Haitians should not be forced to do so either. Obviously, not all Haitians can emigrate, and some who could may not want to. But that reality should not prevent us from allowing those who wish to leave to migrate freely. No one deserves to live in a hellhole of misgovernment through no fault of their own.

Finally, it’s worth noting that allowing free migration by Haitians need not even be considered a form of charity by the US and other Western nations. For reasons discussed in this excellent paper by philosopher Michael Huemer, it is merely getting out of the way of voluntary efforts by migrants to help themselves. Increased Haitian immigration might actually benefit current US residents. Anyone who lives in the Washington, DC area, as I do, can see the various ways in which Haitian immigrants benefit the economy by founding small businesses and doing many kinds of work.

We can argue about the merits of free international migration generally. But denying immigration rights to people living in conditions as horrendous as those in Haiti condemns them to a life of poverty and oppression, and often a very early death.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal makes some similar points in an editorial endorsing President Obama’s decision to give temporary refuge to Haitians scheduled for deportation from the US:

The Obama Administration acted properly, and humanely, late yesterday in extending temporary amnesty to Haitians who were illegally inside the U.S. before this week’s catastrophic earthquake. Some 30,000 Haitians had been awaiting deportation but will now be allowed to stay in the U.S. and work for another 18 months.

You might even call this amnesty of a sort, if we can use that politically taboo word. But we hope even the most restrictionist voices on the right and in the labor movement will understand the humanitarian imperative. The suffering and chaos since the earthquake should make it obvious that Haiti is no place to return people whose only crime was coming to America to escape the island’s poverty and ill-governance.

For that matter, we don’t mind if they stay here permanently. Haitian immigrants as a group are among America’s most successful, which demonstrates that Haiti’s woes owe more to corruption, disdain for property rights and lack of public safety than to any flaw in its people. Their remittances to Haiti also help to sustain the impoverished population. Haitians received some $1.65 billion from overseas in 2006, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

For reasons discussed above, the WSJ’s argument applies almost as strongly to Haitians still in Haiti, as to those already in the US illegally.