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Yesterday the New York Times profiled Lant Pritchett and sketched his proposal to create 16 million guest-worker jobs in rich countries for people from poor countries. His goal is to help people from very poor places make their lives better. The Times piece (subscription may be required) politely leaves the impression that this "eccentric" idea is "ahem, ahead of its time", and that poor Lant is in the grips of an impossible "panacea". Some of the interviewees go as far as to suggest that the whole shebang is darkly immoral.

By itself this reaction doesn't mean much; no idea that is new and important escapes it. Ben Franklin's eccentric petition to abolish slavery outright in 1790 was openly ridiculed in Congress on a long list of practical and moral grounds. Let's look beyond the gasps, then, and look this proposal straight in the eye. Here are a few things you might notice:

1. What we have today looks a lot like it

Lant's proposal involves creating three million jobs in the U.S. for guest workers who would not have full citizenship rights. The Times article derides this as "a Saudi Arabian plan in which an affluent society creates a labor subcaste that is permanently excluded from its ranks." Unfortunately this is not the Saudi plan, it's the American plan, today, now. In the 1990s, about 350,000 unauthorized workers entered the country every year (pdf). In other words, over that decade, America took in three million low-skill workers with no citizen rights and, thanks to the recent failure of the immigration reform bill, little prospect of such rights. They were made much better off, the countries they came from were made much better off, and the U.S. remains the richest and most powerful country on earth. What exactly is so bizarre or outsized in Lant's "eccentric" idea?

2. It has worked in the past as a development strategy

Is it wild to think that sending poor people abroad could be part of a country's development strategy? It wasn't just Ireland that did this in the past; poor people moved out of Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Scotland, Greece, Portugal, and other now-rich countries at vast scale back when those places were poor. My great-great-great grandfather Nicholas Clemens did not come here in 1854 to try the whisky. He came because he was a destitute farmer and Bavaria held little opportunity for an unclassed, unschooled peasant. His departure eased the situation for other Bavarians.

Could rich countries' borders again be open enough to allow such movements? For most of America's history there were very few restrictions on who could enter. Our current system of passports and visas is a 20th century invention. When Nicholas Clemens wanted to improve his life, he simply showed up here and got to working--hard. Obviously the consequences of openness are complex and would be different now than in the 19th century. But to consider more open borders impossible or unthinkable is simply myopia. We have experience with this.

Imagine telling the 76 million Americans in 1900 that over the subsequent century, 47 million foreigners would enter their country. Back then, the foreign-born were already an even higher fraction of the population than they are today. Americans then would have been aghast, as we would be today if someone said that 184 million more foreigners were darkening our doorstep over the decades to come (the same proportion of today's population as 47 into 76). Yet that's exactly what happened over the 20th century, and here we are, the richest nation in all the earth and in all history.

3. Migrants understand what's good for them better than you and I do

Some of the experts interviewed by the Times blast Lant's proposal because it would result in the separation of families while guest workers are abroad. One goes as far as to make a moral analogy between temporary labor movements and illicit trafficking in human organs. Funny how Singha Madur and his son, Nepalis interviewed in the Times article, don't seem so sad that they had to be separated for a few years so that the son could make 10 times the local wage abroad. Apparently migrant families have decided that securing their material well-being is more important to them than short periods of separation. Any moral judgments we might make of their choices, perched as we are at the pinnacle of global wealth, fall flat.

Bottom line: Lant Pritchett's proposal is not the magic bullet that will "develop" the low-income world. That doesn't exist and never will. What Lant is proposing is analogous to using ten spaces in a partially-full lifeboat to save ten people from the Titanic, out of a hundred people left on board. Don't tell him that the boat can't hold ten more; other boats have done so before. And it rings hollow to criticize him for failing to save the other 90. The alternative isn't saving all 100, because our tools for doing that from the outside are weak and slow. The alternative is consigning all 100 to their fates, and rowing away.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.