I’ve been teaching brain-drain related issues this week. Some of the big questions there are empirical ones, and the facts are contested. But some of the normative issues are interesting, and some of them don’t just apply to poor countries. One of these issues is the apparent clash between our duties to compatriots (if we have any) and our rights of exit and expatriation. If I have a duty as a member of an institutional scheme to contribute to the well-being of the least advantaged members of my society, can I just divest myself of that duty (in one bound, as it were) by leaving the country, or, to go one step further, by renouncing my nationality? It was a puzzle that Henry Sigdwick was defeated by back in 1907 [or somewhat earlier in fact, as he died in 1900!]:
`In 1868 it was affirmed, in an Act passed by the Congress of the United States, that ‘the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people.’ I do not know how far this would be taken to imply that a man has a moral right to leave his country whenever he finds it convenient—provided no claims except those of Patriotism retain him there. But if it was intended to imply this, I think the statement would not be accepted in Europe without important limitations: though I cannot state any generally accepted principle from which such limitations could be clearly deduced.” Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed (1907) The position of the United States in 1868 was merely a codification of the one it had taken in the War of 1812 against the British, who had wished to insist that their nationals could not divest themselves at will of their duties to the Crown and could still be lawfully conscripted by the Royal Navy, even though such persons had decleared themselve American.
The US position in 1812 seems right to us today, and yet it also seems to carry with it some uncomfortable implications. If the super-rich tire of the burden of redistributive taxation in their country of origin, may they divest themselves of their duties to poor fellow Americans (or Brits, or … ) merely by living abroad and perhaps acquiring a different nationality? (Some nationalities, such as St Kitts are readily available for purchase). Common sense says that it shouldn’t be so easy and that our feelings of revulsion towards tax dodgers and tax exiles are well-founded. Yet the tax exile who relocates to some tax haven may well be doing something of great benefit to the least advantaged of his or her new country of citizenship, and may thereby be satisfactorily discharging new duties to newly acquired compatriots. (Though less expensive ones, selected by shopping around among jurisdictions).
It seems hard to hang onto all of our principles in a consistent manner. Rights of exit and expatriation are a solid part of international human rights law (UDHR clauses 13.2 and 15.2) but we want to condemn as unjust the person who opts to abandon poor compatriots. One answer would be to say that the wealth tax expatriate is doing something that ought to attract our disapproval but that it would be wrong to coerce such a person into better behaviour. But I’m not sure I’m happy leaving it there.