Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (8): Modern Slave Redemption and Swords-to-Plowshares

“Slave redemption” is an effort to buy the freedom of women trafficked into prostitution, coerced domestic servants and other modern slaves. In essence, you offer to pay the slave-holder (the pimp for example) a price for the slave that exceeds his or her present and future value.

It’s a very controversial policy. Any individual who acquires his or her freedom in this way is obviously better off, but the policy may set up a self-defeating process:

When you have people running around buying up slaves, you help create a market demand for more slaves… It’s like paying the burglar for the television set he just stole. … The slave traders end up with more money, buying more guns and hiring more thugs to go out and take more slaves. (source)

A very similar process may take hold of another, more recent initiative. Fonderie47 is an

organization that buys AK-47s at above-market-prices in conflict zones and turns them into extremely expensive accessories, all in the name of helping Africa. Apparently, the logic is that this will increase the price of AK-47s, thereby decreasing their pervasive presence in conflict zones. (source)

Of course, and again, the very opposite is likely to occur. Gun dealers will just take in larger stocks of AK-47s – like the traffickers enslave more people – because of demand expectations and higher prices. Then they’ll find out that the guns-to-jewelry initiative can’t follow suit – and perhaps turns out to be a hype – after which the excess guns are dumped in war zones. Furthermore, even if the initiative keeps going and succeeds in bringing down the numbers of AK-47s in war zones, the dealers will just buy other weapons with the extra funds they now have thanks to the initiative.

You can read such stories in two ways, according to your pre-existing biases: either the stories teach us that marketization doesn’t solve everything and that we should tackle such problems with the use of force; or they teach us that we shouldn’t intervene in the market. What I personally learned from them is that people are very creative and human rights advocates are no exception. That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s often no substitute for structural solutions that aim for the root causes of problems.

More posts in this series here.

Gender Discrimination (22): Gendercide

The Economist has a front page story this week on “gendercide”, the millions of girls missing in the world, especially in India and China. Perhaps as many as 100 million girls have disappeared in the last decades because of

  • selective abortions encouraged by new medical technology (ultrasounds and fertility technology)
  • childhood neglect of girls (nutritional, educational neglect and neglect in health care)
  • prejudice, preference for male offspring and
  • population policies such as the “one child policy” in China.

Interestingly, the skewed sex ratios that result from gendercide (in some areas of China, 130 boys are being born for every 100 girls) are coming back to haunt the men that are responsible (although many mothers probably aren’t without fault either). Because of their relative scarcity, women have found an unlikely source of power. They have a competitive advantage in the marriage market, and can demand more in marriage negotiations, or at least be more selective when choosing a mate.


In my view, the word “gendercide” is somewhat overwrought because, contrary to genocide, the word that inspired the neologism of gendercide, there’s no centralized plan to exterminate women. Femicide would be a better term since it’s obviously only one of two genders that’s targeted, but it still sounds like a government organized campaign of extermination. Gendercide is the result of a combination of causes:

  • individual choices based on
  • plain prejudice against girls
  • cultural and legal traditions, or
  • economic incentives that have been formed by historical prejudice.

Perhaps girls still need a dowry, and poor parents may find it difficult to save enough and hence prefer a boy. Or perhaps they prefer a boy because the law of their country or tribe – inspired by age-old prejudice – says that only boys can inherit land or the family business. Again, the parents may prefer a boy for this reason, not because they dislike girls. Or perhaps tradition holds that girls marry off into their husbands families, and parents simply want to be sure to have someone in their home to care for them when they are old (“raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden”, is a Hindu saying).


The consequences of gendercide are mixed. It’s obviously horrible to the girls that are aborted or neglected to death. But, as in the “boomerang” case cited above, gendercide may ultimately empower women. However, the skewed sex ratios also spell trouble: the presence of armies of men who can’t find wives and have children (“bare branches” or “guanggun” they are called in China) may result in more sexual violence, depression, suicide, human trafficking etc. It’s estimated that in 10 years time, one in five young Chinese men won’t be able to find a bride. On the other hand, a shortage of women will encourage immigration, and immigration may help some women escape poverty, and perhaps will also result in more intercultural tolerance.


Economic development won’t stop it. In China and India, the regions with the worst sex ratios are wealthy ones, with educated populations. Even in some population strata in the U.S. sex ratios are skewed. When people escape poverty, fertility rates drop, and when families have fewer children, the need to select for sex only becomes more important in order to realize their son preference. In poor societies with high fertility rates, families are almost destined to have a boy at some point. Female children will suffer relative neglect and may die more often and more rapidly (skewing the sex ratios), but selective abortions aren’t much of a risk: families don’t really feel the need to limit the number of children (on the contrary often, because children are a workforce), and ultrasound technology for sex determination of fetuses isn’t as readily available as in rich countries or regions. When families want few children – as they do in more developed regions – or are forced by the government to limit their number of children (as in China), they will abort female fetuses in pursuit of a son.

Ultimately, only a cultural change will help. The son preference has to die out. Education probably will help, as it always does. Ending pernicious policies such as the one child policy will also help, but then overpopulation hysterics will have to be dealt with. This policy didn’t help stop population growth anyway. Other East Asian countries reduced population pressure as much as China without brutal policies.

Old customs and discriminating laws should also be abolished. Think of the dowry system, or inheritance rights. Stigmatizing abortion, especially sex selective abortion, will also help.

Migration and Human Rights (14): Migration and Overpopulation

People often, but mistakenly in my view, see two types of links between overpopulation and migration:

  • The pressure to migrate from the undeveloped South to the richer North is mainly if not exclusively caused by overpopulation in the South.
  • The reason why countries in the North restrict immigration from the South is the fear of overpopulation in the North, resulting from immigration. The relatively healthy economies of the North would not be able to withstand the population shock of major inflows of immigrants, especially given the fact that most immigrants are not high-skilled and tend to be a burden on an economy rather than an asset. Immigration needs to be restricted because it means importing poverty.

I’ll try to argue that both these arguments are wrong and that it is a mistake to link migration to overpopulation in these ways. I’ll start with the first point.

Two things are true about the first argument: migration towards developed countries has increased sharply during the last decades (see here), and population growth in the South has been faster than in the North (see here). What is not true, however, is that the latter has been the cause of the former.

Other social and economic factors, rather than overpopulation, have driven migration. Given the highly regulated nature of migration to the North (green cards, other types of labor certification, visa, border controls etc.), it’s obvious that the people who are able to immigrate are not the poor that are supposedly driven out of their own economies by overpopulation. Only the “jobworthy” who are successful at applying for entry-visas can migrate. (See also here.) And the same is true for illegal immigrants, i.e. those bypassing the regulations. They as well tend to be people who have work prospects in the North, or at least enough money to pay human traffickers.

All this also serves to disprove the second argument above: if migrants in general are not the poorest of the poor, then the second argument doesn’t hold.

However, back to the first argument for a moment. Another economic factor driving migration and completely unconnected to population levels, is the globalization of economic production. Employers in developed countries actively look for relatively cheap workers from the South, and technological improvements in communication, transportation and travel are making this easier.

(One could also point to war and violence as driving forces behind migration, but Malthusians would reply that the real driving force is overpopulation, causing first war and conflict, and then migration. There’s a lot to be said against this, but I’ll keep that for another time).

Regarding the second argument, one can make the following counter-claim. Let’s assume that immigration controls indeed serve the only purpose of keeping people out so as to keep the economy healthy and avoid population shocks which the economy wouldn’t be able to withstand. (Of course, immigration controls in reality serve many other purposes, e.g. pampering xenophobes). If we assume this, we should further assume that existing quotas on immigration (quotas as the result of visa policy, labor permits, family reunion policy etc.) are set in such a way that the number of migrants that are allowed into the country is roughly the number that the economy can sustain. Not higher because then immigration policy would defeat its purpose, but not much lower either because then the restrictions would be unjust and arbitrary.

Given these two assumptions, how do we explain the failure of massive numbers of illegal immigration to destroy host economies? Take for instance the U.S. It’s in an economic crisis right now, but nobody in his right mind claims that immigration is the cause. The U.S. economy was booming for years, and at the same time accommodated millions of legal and illegal immigrants.

To sum up, the tidal wave paranoia of the poor masses of the South engulfing the developed world is just another example of Malthusian hysteria. A simple look at population growth numbers make this abundantly clear. Population has indeed grown more rapidly in the South than in the North (partially because of higher birth rates), but only to return to the same proportion as a few centuries ago. The industrial revolution in the North resulted in more rapid population growth, and the South is now catching up. Fears of growing imbalances and “tsunamis of the poor” aren’t based on facts.