The idea that migrants are trying to move to freer societies is far from new. In my book Free to Move: Foot Polling, Migration, and Political Freedom, I cite evidence that migrants tend to move to countries with greater economic freedom, and that migrant women often particularly favor those where women’s equality is greater. But I have also pointed out that it is difficult to quantify the extent of the gains in freedom that this brings, although in many cases they are obviously large.
In a short article just published, immigration scientist David Bier of the Cato Institute provides some valuable data that quantify this effect much more fully than any previous analysis.
Using the Human Freedom Index from the Cato Institute-Fraser Institute and international migrant population data from the United Nations Population Division, it is estimated that approximately 187 million people have moved to freer countries than those where they were born. The average immigrant who moved to a freer country moved up 70 places in the Human Freedom Index ranking. This is kind of like moving from Libya to Mexico or from Mexico to the US.
Cuban immigrants have benefited the most from immigration and have risen an average of 172 places compared to their country of birth, which is the difference between the United States and Cuba.
As Bier points out, the Cato-Fraser Human Freedom Index encompasses both economic and civil liberties. So it is a largely comprehensive measure of freedom.
The effect of shifting 70 or more points on this scale is really enormous. The difference between your life in Cuba or the United States is the difference between living in poverty and oppression and much more freedom, wellbeing and happiness for your children. The barely “economic” benefits alone are enormous and would mean a doubling of global GDP if all migration restrictions were lifted. But even this type of figure cannot take full advantage of it, including dissidents who have escaped censorship, ethnic, religious, and racial minorities who are fleeing persecution, and so on.
Beer points out that a minority of migrants (about 69 million of the 256 million in the UN database) have actually moved to countries with lower freedom ratings than those they left behind. However, as he points out, many of these are cases where the gap is relatively small and the migrant concerned may have tried to avoid repression targeting their specific group. Even if country A is, on average, less free than B, A may grant greater freedom to a particular racial or religious minority that is the subject of persecution in B:
About 69 million immigrants have moved to fewer free lands than their birthplaces, but these movements are almost always sideways (averaging about 15 points down versus 70 points up in the ranking), and in almost all cases these movements are still almost always Freedom improvement for the individual mover. The specific type of freedom that is most needed may be more relevant to the immigrant than the other types.
This is why even what appears, on average, as a net loss of freedom can, in a person’s individual circumstances, improve freedom.
I would add that such data is necessarily very imprecise. While a gap of 70 points in the Cato-Fraser Index is likely to capture really big differences between the nations in question, a gap of 15 or less can often be primarily just noise in the data. Nonetheless, it would be useful to examine more closely the minority of migrants (around 27%) who choose societies that are classified as less free than their countries of origin.
In addition to increasing freedom for migrants, the expansion of international migration also increases the freedom and prosperity of locals. I summarize a few reasons here.
Perhaps the most common response to arguments that migration increases freedom is to claim that immigration from repressive societies can harm the institutions that guarantee freedom in destination countries. Perhaps the immigrants bring with them the harmful values and institutions that ruined their previous homes. In the worst possible scenarios, the latter’s institutions can deteriorate to the point where they are no better than the former, thereby “killing the goose that laid the golden egg” that makes a nation attractive to migrants in the first place.
Such concerns should not be lightly dismissed. But in chapter 6 of my book, I go over a lot of evidence that suggests it is severely overblown. Indeed, native nationalists generally pose a greater threat to liberal democratic institutions than immigrants.
Alex Nowrasteh and Ben Powell’s recently released Wretched Refuse? The political economy of immigration and institutions is the most thorough analysis to date of the effects of immigration on institutions in the destination countries. And their conclusions are similar to mine. In my book, I also discuss arguments that make migrants obliged to stay home and “fix their own countries”, which may improve their institutions.
In situations where immigration is indeed an institutional threat, I outline a wide range of “keyhole solutions” that can be used to mitigate the threat through less draconian (and cheaper) measures than excluding migrants. For example, if you believe (contrary to the evidence) that immigrants may overload the welfare state, a simple keyhole solution (already included in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act) is to restrict their access to welfare benefits.
We cannot categorically rule out that the freedom-enhancing benefits of free migration are sometimes outweighed by other considerations. Such considerations, however, would need to be both extremely weighty and supported by strong evidence showing that there is no other way to address them than to send potential migrants into a life of poverty and oppression.