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It’s very difficult to lift people out of poverty via redistribution or philanthropy. Small gains in income can be expected at best, but there are far more powerful ways to improve well being. These have to do with expanding the fundamental freedoms, rights and rewards available to private individuals. Harvard’s Lant Pritchard divides these efforts into two broad categories: policies that improve labor mobility, and those that lead to gains in-place via economic growth. His working paper, “Alleviating Global Poverty: Labor Mobility, Direct Assistance, and Economic Growth”, is available here.

Economic Benefits of Migration 

Pritchard first explains that the freedom to migrate across borders in pursuit of economic opportunity allows workers from low-productivity countries to contribute much greater output in high productivity countries. In so doing, the workers gain far more than can be practically accomplished via direct aid, and according to Pritchard, at zero or little cost. So granting this freedom is a much more effective anti-poverty measure than aid payments.

Pritchard seems to imply that this is a persuasive economic argument for open borders. On that question, I take the position that countries are sovereign entities and that their citizens possess the right to determine the extent of immigration flows. And in fact, there are real costs of immigration flows that must be considered. Pritchard’s paper offers a powerful rationale for liberalizing immigration quotas, but here again, he dismisses certain issues that limit even that more narrow argument.

The prospective economic gains of the immigrants themselves are important, of course, but the economic needs of the destination country matter too. In the U.S., employers in many markets face a shortage of low-skilled labor, so immigration quotas bind on those markets. Making them less binding would certainly encourage economic growth. A greater influx of younger workers from abroad would also help America weather its demographic crisis, narrowing the shortfall in funding entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, to those who do not already recognize these needs, Pritchard’s contribution is likely to carry little weight.

Still, Pritchard’s assertion that the cost of liberalized immigration is zero needs further examination. First, there are the very real costs of vetting and processing new immigrants. Second, unless all immigrants and employers are matched ex ante, which is virtually impossible, there will be adjustment costs that continue at least until the matching is complete. In the interim, and even post-employment, new immigrants might well require public aid to support themselves and their families. It is also quite likely that new tax revenue generated by immigrants will be insufficient to pay the full incremental costs of public resources consumed in providing marginal infrastructure, education, and other public subsidies.

Pritchard employs static calculations of the net benefits to be gained through greater labor mobility “at the margin”, but as the absorption of new immigrants into the workforce takes place, excess demands for low-skilled workers may turn into excess supplies, creating downward pressure on wages. In the presence of a minimum wage, that implies unemployment and a probable drain on public resources. So the source of the benefits discussed by Pritchard should not be viewed as limitless. He offers some mild rebuttals of this point and references one of his own papers in so doing, but the possibility cannot and should not be dismissed.

Economic Benefits of Economic Freedom

Pritchard’ second major point of emphasis involves the effectiveness of different kinds of private and public direct assistance, or “treatments”, in producing income gains over time. He offers evidence that the gains are relatively weak. He contrasts this with the potential gains from “growth accelerations” stemming from a variety of causes. The upside of a normal business cycle is one form, but that doesn’t really count if the gains are lost on the downside.

The most profound form of growth acceleration occurs upon the advent of a liberalized social order. This may accompany the downfall of an authoritarian government, the stabilization of a formerly unsound monetary regime, or as more sophisticated market institutions take hold in a formerly primitive economy. The main point is that there are fundamental social underpinnings of growth. These are the many dimensions of economic freedom: secure property rights, freedom of contract, minimal regulatory interference, low taxes, and competitive markets for goods and capital. These conditions are so straightforward that in developed economies we take many of them for granted, through they are threatened even there. But these conditions are sadly lacking in much of the under-developed world.


Allowing workers to migrate freely in search of the best opportunities is undoubtedly more powerful in improving their welfare than any form of direct assistance. That is a fundamental truth put forward by Lant Pritchard. However, in-migration can come with significant costs for the destination country. Therefore, immigration laws should allow sufficient flexibility with respect to flows to enable the capture of economic gains from immigration when they exist. Pritchard also emphasizes that economic freedom and the growth acceleration it makes possible do far more to reduce poverty than massive private and public efforts at direct assistance, however well-intentioned. Several earlier posts on Sacred Cow Chips have highlighted the impotency of redistribution for eliminating poverty. The Left has a tendency to dismiss such views as mere ideological assertion, but it is much more than that: it is the difference between penury and prosperity.