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Quick book review: International Migration by Jonathon W. Moses October 3, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : Political economy , trackback

Title: International Migration – globalization’s last frontier
Author: Jonathon W. Moses
Year: 2006
Publisher: Zed Books, London
ISBN: 1842776592

I read this book as part of the required reading in a course on International Political Economy by prof. Moses, a man I hold in high regard both as a person and an academic. As he’s also the advisor for my master thesis you might question how good idea it is to criticize his work, but to hell with caution. Praise without criticism is boring and without much credibility anyway. Besides I’ve already done this during an oral exam that turned out well, so…

Let me start by recommending this book as a good read. Even though it has its flaws, it’s a thought-provoking analysis of a topic that certainly doesn’t have the attention it deserves in political science. It certainly gave me a lot of new ideas and forced me to rethink my entire conception of migration and borders in general.

Quickly summarized, Moses argues strongly and normatively against barriers to migration. He shows us how the world is becoming more and more globalized in a lot of areas, but how migration has somehow been exempt from this universal trend. He then proceeds along three separate lines of reasoning to explain why this is wrong: morally, politically and economically. Finally there is a chapter in which he challenges the conventional wisdoms on the effects of migration before concluding with a policy recommendation of open borders and broader debates.

The most novel and compelling of these arguments is undoubtedly the political one. Quite convincingly, and with reference among others to Alfred Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty, he argues for how free migration might be a tool to empower the citizen by giving him the option of leaving a country that is unresponsive to his needs and preferences, a freedom that capital owners already exploit. Contrary to Milton Friedman’s claims that a welfare state is incompatible with free migration, the threat of losing one’s workforce could make it impossible not to offer proper welfare.

The economic argument is more along the lines of conventional economics. The free movement of labor ensures increased efficiency in the international market benefiting all, as well as a wealth distribution more beneficial for workers.

The moral argument moves along three main tracks: Firstly, Moses argues that mobility should be considered a fundamental human right and liberty – that no state should have the power to refuse its citizens the right of movement. As what country you’re born into is a matter of random luck he also finds it hard to justify this giving you special rights. Secondly, Moses attacks a number of moral justifications for closed borders: the right to prioritize welfare for those nearest to you, the need to define citizens’ rights and the obligation to provide security within the state. Thirdly, he argues that “the current global system is immoral so long as it continues to produce global inequalities” (p.73).

While the political argument, in terms of the content of the argument itself is the strongest, I find the moral argument to clearly be the weakest – so much so that I believe the book would be more convincing without it. The main problem is the connection between the perceived fundamental right of movement and the right to close your borders. He doesn’t argue well for why the right to opt out of a social contract you don’t agree with should translate into the right to move to wherever you like. Without explanation, this right seems implicitly to be stronger than the right to private property.

Furthermore, the premise “When our citizenship cannot be understood as a moral birthright, but is understood in therms of the luck of the draw,…” (p.63) is at best highly controversial. Credibly discarding family, and thus inheritance, as a morally justifiable nucleus of society is not done in a couple of sentences. The very short justification given for this premise is far from sufficient to ensure the reader accepts it. I for one didn’t. The book argues that from here “…the moral argument for open migration is straightforward” (p.62). Once I question the most basic premise, the moral argument becomes far from straightforward. The effort of the moral argument becomes wasted.

With this in mind, a second major flaw to the argument is introduced. One that surprises me. Moses is himself well versed in the classic rules of rhetoric, having himself put Aristotle’s Rhetoric on my curriculum. It surprises me then that he has not followed Cicero’s rules by putting his weakest argument in between the stronger ones. By opening with the argument most suited to provoke disagreement by the reader, he has already weakened his own credibility for the arguments to come.

My final point of criticism concerns what I consider his best argument, unfortunately weakened by the way it’s presented. The market-based argument is nothing short of brilliant. With this argument alone, I am convinced. Unfortunately it is preceded by an 8-page discussion of an unnecessarily provocative with inadequate links to the argument as a whole. In an effort to provoke an emotional response in the reader, the closed borders of the nation state are compared to the apartheid system in South Africa. The justification for why the forced relocations and confinement to certain areas in South Africa is essentially the same thing as a nation state limiting immigration is sorely underdeveloped. Using such an extreme example is risky, and should warrant particular care about the way it is presented and the consistency of the argument. Once more I as a reader need to disregard a portion of the book in order to enjoy the rest.

This being said – I do encourage the reader to do just that. Don’t give up if you’re put off by the morality arguments or the apartheid example. Focus on the parts that are really good – the political and the economic lines of argumentation. If you’ve never taken time to reflect on the necessity of border control, these two arguments alone are sure to force you to lean back and consider it.


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