Brain drain

“Brain drain”, also called “human capital flight”, refers to the large-scale emigration of people from a country (definition cribbed from Wikipedia page). It is argued that an increase in the freedom of migration may lead to underdeveloped countries undergoing severe brain drain. For instance, how would Africa’s medical problems look if all the doctors in Africa had the freedom to migrate to the West, where they could command much higher salaries?

Empirical counter-arguments

  • Brain drain may be more a phenomenon of partially, rather than wholly, free migration. For instance, with partially free migration where developed countries favor allowing only skilled workers in, brain drain problems may be more severe. With totally free migration, unskilled workers can leave bad national systems too, and the worst countries might see a very large exodus, causing them to either be emptied out or forcing significant political reform in the countries (see exit and competitive government). See also Why open borders are a solution to brain drain, a blog post by Natha nSmith.
  • What happens in practice may be more of “brain circulation” than brain drain, as ideas and people circulate between multiple countries. For more on this, see one world.
  • Incentives for human capital development: The possibility of migration creates incentives for people to acquire skills that will make it easy for them to get jobs in other countries. Of all the people who do acquire such skills, many may ultimately choose not to migrate but instead use those skills to take up jobs in their home countries. This effect has been observed for nursing students in Africa. See more at the link.
  • Remittances from the developed to the developing world are quite significant.

Moral counter-arguments

In addition to the empirical counter-arguments, there is a moral counter-argument about self-ownership versus state ownership: even if brain drain hurts some other people in the source country, this is not a good reason to restrict migration, i.e., it is not sufficient to overcome the right to migrate. Each individual owns his or her own self, and is not owned by the state where he or she was born.

Blog posts and articles

For a more detailed discussion of the issue from multiple perspectives, check out the posts tagged brain drain on the Aid Watch blog.

Articles and research papers