I’m not sure exactly how to feel about Europe’s migrant crisis, whereby 1.4 million individuals fleeing war or economic calamity are expected to seek refuge within the continent by the end of next year. It’s been startling, to put it mildly, to read about the risks some of these people took to escape their home countries, and the catastrophes that some of them have experienced. But beyond that, I hope and pray that the crisis forces a dialogue about the massive movement of human beings around the globe that will need to occur over the next several decades.
To illustrate what I mean, take a look at the chart below. It shows UN population projections in developing (i.e. “poor”) countries next to those in developed (“rich”) countries over the next century. I lump in China with the rich countries for two reasons: one is that China, though still poor by most measures, is rapidly converging towards being developed; and the other is that it’s facing the same potential slow-motion population disaster as places like Europe and Japan, thanks in large part to its one-child policy.
As you can see, the rich world is basically facing an epic storm of receding population levels, an issue that is destined to become more and more noticeable in our lifetime. As population growth turns negative in these countries and as their populations age, it will put huge pressure on fiscal budgets — think of all the money the government must come up with to pay pensions to an aging population, in the face of a shrinking pool of income tax payers. It also exacerbates the problem of sluggish aggregate demand and deflation, already a major issue in places like Japan and Europe.
So the rich world already has a need for young, able-bodied workers, and will likely need more and more of them in the years ahead. Guess what? There are huge numbers of such people in the developing world, ready to pack up and come work in the rich countries, often for wages you and I find substandard but which represent a giant leap forward from the developing country status quo. And it’s likely that as developing country populations explode, and especially as issues like climate change destroy living conditions in many of these — more Syrias, in other words — there will be even more workers from poor countries looking for new places to live.
Meanwhile, economists have long highlighted the enormous gains to poor country residents from just small increases in international labor mobility. An oft-cited study on the economic implications for poor country residents immigrating to the United States, for instance, estimated a four-fold increase in real wages for the typical worker. But freer labor mobility should not be seen as an issue of charity. In reality, developed economies will soon become as desperate for young people to come in as today’s refugees currently are to get out.
So rich countries need workers, while poor countries have too many. The question is, Will this transaction actually take place? The economic case is unmistakably clear; without expanding their labor forces through immigration, rich countries are headed for a slow-motion economic train wreck. The stumbling block is not scientific evidence but pure, good-old-fashioned prejudice. We all see the need for more workers in places like Germany, Japan, and America. Let’s be real: We just don’t feel comfortable with them being Turkish, Indonesian, or Mexican.
This is why seemingly squishy, airy-fairy ideas such as “loving thy neighbor” and “universal brotherhood” are so important and potentially powerful. The tar of prejudice is so thick that whole societies would rather commit the equivalent of economic suicide than let brown-shaded, funny-accented people to join their nations. World unity is not some utopian ideal; it’s a matter of economic survival.
As Shoghi Effendi put it nearly 80 years ago:
The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.
The problem is daunting, but the solution is simple. Only stubborn prejudice and fear stand in the way.