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Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future
Published by EH.NET (October 2011)
Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan, Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. xv + 371 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-14572-3.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Chris Minns, Economic History Department, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Exceptional People is an ambitious, wide-ranging study of international migration. The book is divided into three sections, each with a distinctive chronological focus. In “Past,” three chapters review three distinct eras of migration history. The first chapter connects population movements before 1500 to long term developments in human history. Through a series of engaging examples from the spread of homo sapiens out of Africa to the beginnings of the Great Divergence between China and Europe, Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan emphasize the importance of migration in establishing economic connections between distant peoples. The story then moves forward to a time period more familiar to many readers of this review, with slavery, indentured servitude, and the emergence of free mass migration. The final chapter in the section details the emergence of migration restrictions following the First World War, and the evolution of policies to manage migration following the Second World War.
“Present” discusses the major issues engaging social scientists interested in migration today. To explain what motivates people to move between countries, Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan describe how individual incentives interact with family constraints, broader ethnic networks, and macroeconomic conditions in source and destination economies. A second chapter in this section explores the interaction between recent trends in international migration and policy framework, with migrants passing through several potential emigration channels, ranging from economic selection to refugee movement. The last chapter in “Present” enters into the debate on the impact of migration on destination and sending economies.
“Future” was for me the most interesting part of the book. Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan outline their predictions for the future of migration. They anticipate continued expansion of mass migration due to rising pressure for movement out of poor countries, and high demand for both skilled and unskilled labor in destination countries. They also emphasize that an increasing range of countries will supply migrants. They conclude with a five-point plan to support their vision of the future. Ensuring the rights and legal status of migrants, promoting economic assimilation and reducing discrimination, and collecting more appropriate data are identified as key to supporting large international population flows through relatively open borders.
Exceptional People has strength in all three sections. “Past” offers a wide-ranging review of the history of long-distance migration, reminding the reader of some of the interactions with economic development that do not always come immediately to mind. Experts on particular periods may quibble with some aspects of the coverage -- indentured servitude prior to slavery seems to have been omitted, for example, and my reading of the past is that there was little liberal consensus regarding the utility of passports and border control (p. 70-71). That said, these chapters pack impressive scope into less than 100 pages -- I picked up several new ideas for my courses in this section, and think most economic historians would as well. “Present” is a well thought-through discussion of the current migration framework and present-day debates about how immigration impacts on various groups. The authors are more enthusiastic about the benefits of migration for all parties involved than many of the social scientists they cite, but the pro-migration case made here is more persuasive and better developed than elsewhere.
“Future” is the most challenging section of the book. The authors are to be commended for putting their predictions and policy prescriptions on paper. Many will, however, want to argue with both predictions and prescription. I am less certain than the authors that the volume of international migration will rise inevitably over the next half century. History tells us that globalization is not an irreversible process: impressive rates of migration in the early twentieth century Atlantic economy were brought to a halt by conflict, crisis, and policy response. History will probably not repeat itself, especially if policy makers have learned from mistakes in the period where doors for immigrants were slammed shut. However, one of the main lessons from history is that the perceived impact of migration on labor markets is a leading cause of demand for restrictive migration policies. Workers (and voters) may identify the costs of immigration more easily than the benefits. While the authors are well aware that the benefits of migration are not shared equally, their agenda for the future offers relatively little to convince or compensate skeptics in destination economies, especially those who perceive immigrants primarily as competition in the labor market. Exceptional People makes a strong intellectual case for open borders; whether median voters will accept the distribution of outcomes that open borders imply is harder to say.
Exceptional People is an excellent book. It would make a great addition to readings lists for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses dealing extensively with migration. Its wide scope will provide plenty of ideas for new academic projects, and its conclusions invite reflection and further discussion.
Chris Minns is Lecturer in the Economic History Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has recently published “Networks in the Premodern Economy: The Market for London Apprenticeships, 1600-1749” (with Tim Leunig and Patrick Wallis), Journal of Economic History, 71 (2). pp. 413-43.
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