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The brain drain as economic war: saying the quiet bit out loud
If open borders would ruin Russia, what about Romania and Bulgaria?
I took my 23andMe test a few months back, confirming what I knew anyway — that my ancestors had mostly come from the west of Ireland and the north of England, edging down towards London and its pre-eminent position close to the markets of core Europe.
My paternal grandfather was from Liverpool, and like many of the city’s middle classes left in the early 20th century, a pattern felt across Lancashire and Yorkshire as England’s centre of gravity shifted south (where it had always been before the industrial revolution). The impact on the region has proved long-lasting, including on education levels.
Other parts of the world have suffered far worse brain drains, the most extreme being during periods of tyranny. Some 1,600 university teachers were dismissed by the Nazis within the first two years of power, most of whom went on to emigrate; for a country to lose a third of its academics is devastating, but even in the first year of Nazi rule 65,000 Germans fled, evenly split between Jews and Gentiles, and these included among the country’s most educated and talented individuals. At the time, Germany led the world in Nobel Prizes; by 2020, it had won barely a quarter of America’s total.
Similarly, there are around half a million Venezuelans in the US, of whom roughly half have a degree, twice the US average (although they tend to be younger). Venezuela has lost a huge chunk of its middle class, and even if and when the current regime goes, most will not come back.
As for Russia, Stalin’s meat-grinder had a catastrophic effect on the country’s intelligentsia, and in almost every sphere of excellence. Communist tyrannies have their own form of brain drain — murder — which in turns spurs the talented to leave. As an illustration, on October 26, 1932 the Soviet leader met with the country’s 40 leading novelists at Maxim Gorky’s Moscow mansion, hoping to explain the wonders of socialist realism; within a decade, his regime had killed 11 of them. It is hardly surprising that Russia has been losing its most talented people to the west for decades.
Communist regimes took the brain drain seriously, to such an extent that they imprisoned their citizens; in Cambodia, emigration was punishable by death while in East Germany the end result was pretty much the same. The communist justification was that, since young people benefitted from the state’s huge investment in their healthcare and education, its citizen owed the state their working years (although, as private healthcare and education was banned, there really wasn’t much choice involved). Since the Wall came down, East Germany has lost around 1.2m people to the West.
Brain drains are indeed damaging, so it’s interesting that the EU is now considering it as a weapon of economic war against Putin’s Russia. Incapacitating the regime by inviting its most talented people to leave.
The argument was made by Ben Ramanauskas in CapX, the website of the free-market Centre for Policy Studies. In response to the suggestion by at least one MP that we could expel Russians, he argues that this would ‘play straight into Putin’s hands. He could claim that the UK hates Russia and its people and that his invasion is justified to strike back at a “Russophobic” West. We would risk losing political capital, even among the Russians who so bravely protested in their own country against the invasion of Ukraine.
‘Instead, we should do the opposite of what Tugendhat suggests. Rather than expel Russians, we should make it far easier for Russians to move to the UK. There are obviously security concerns, and I’m not talking about taking in any of Putin’s friends, but rather young people, especially those with scientific and technical skills.
‘Russia is a beautiful country with a rich history and wonderful people. Hopefully one day, once Putin is gone, the nation will be able to thrive again and the people who Britain has welcomed and trained will be able to return and help it rebuild. In the meantime, the UK should be welcoming any young and talented Russian who wants to start a new life.’
While I certainly agree that we shouldn’t punish innocent Russians, what about those left behind by the brain drain? Aren’t we punishing them? They will undoubtably suffer from the exit of their most talented compatriots, after all.
Whether they get them back at all is questionable, the argument that Russians will then return and rebuild the country being based on ‘brain circulation’, a neat and reassuring theory but not one that neccessarily matches reality. In fact migration tends to be permanent in such circumstances, and most people don’t move back from rich countries to poor countries — especially since many of the problems at home won’t disappear soon.
As with Syria, Russia’s current ills will last long enough into the future that by the time it’s in any way attractive to return home, it will be another generation, the comfortable offspring of today’s migrants writing pieces for Teen Vogue in 2050 about how it’s outrageous that people can’t pronounce their names and this is the worst injustice ever.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the case for brain drain as economic war is that this is exactly what British and EU policy has long been towards friendly countries like Romania and Bulgaria.
Eastern Europe has a massive emigration crisis as it is. Even before the conflict, two out of five Ukrainians of working age had left to find employment abroad. For a country with a fertility rate of just 1.23 children-per-woman, that is an existential crisis.
The situation is so bad that Lithuania has an anti-emigration party, which might seem eccentric except that there are 150,000 of their countrymen now in Britain, mostly younger people from a nation of just 3 million.
Bulgaria will lose a quarter of its population by 2050, a combination of low birth rates and emigration, but it affects the highly skilled in particular. Romania lost half its doctors in just six years after 2009, having joined the EU two years earlier.
On the day that Romania and Bulgaria became members of the Union there was widespread mirth among Britain’s media talents about warnings of the approaching ‘flood’; but, as always, migration numbers far exceeded predictions. Today there are over 1 million Romanians in the UK, far higher than was thought, well over one in 20 of all Romanians.
If you’re a free-movement liberal then the Pareto argument is that humanity overall benefits from this exchange, even if many migrants end up doing jobs way below their skill level (at least initially). There is also the reasonable argument that talented people in poor countries have no obligation to stay home when there are opportunities elsewhere, anymore than my grandfather was obliged to remain in Liverpool.
That is unanswerable, but we could at least acknowledge that Europe’s open borders are not a bonus for the countries losing their young and talented. For decades the official line has been that poorer European nations benefitted from migration; now we’re being told it’s also a way to punish regimes we don’t like. On free movement, it seems like they’re saying the quiet bit out loud.