Opinions Migration

The Flight of the Honest

, by Massimo Anelli
Migrants tend to be more honest than those who stay in their places of origin. As a result, those countries are deprived of social capital, with negative effects on productivity, growth and the quality of institutions

Discussion of the impact that emigration has on places of origin often focuses on the concept of "Brain Drain". The departure of so many young people with university education and the consequent loss of their contribution to the productivity of their countries of origin is a very strong concern in countries subject to high emigration, starting with Italy. Brain migration impoverishes some areas of the world and enriches others.

However, it is important to consider that migrants tend to "select" themselves not only on the basis of their education or skills. We know that migrants tend to be more entrepreneurial, more open to political change, and have different demographic preferences than those who stay in their place of origin.

A recent study I wrote with Tommaso Colussi and Andrea Ichino shows that those who emigrate tend to be more honest than those who stay in their place of origin.

This empirical evidence has been developed thanks to the study of a very particular historical phenomenon.

In fact, demographers have long detected the phenomenon of falsification of dates of birth in various countries around the world. Even in Italy until the 1950s (when doctors assisting births in hospitals began to directly certify the date of birth), in some places more than others, some parents of babies born in December decided to declare the birth to the institutions only on the first of January. Parents declared a false date of birth in order to influence a better placement of their children according to age in areas such as education, sports and enlistment in the army (compulsory in Italy until 1985). In addition, the postponement of the date of birth to January could be aimed at delaying the child's entry into adulthood, also influencing the timing for marriage or the end of the children's contribution to the family economy in a mostly rural era.

This phenomenon gave rise for many decades to an unnatural decrease in births registered in the last month of the year and a corresponding abnormal increase in registrations in the first week of January, and has made it possible to exploit local variations in registered births as an indicator of honesty. In fact, it has been shown that citizens who emigrate are less likely to have a false birth certificate than those who remain in their territory of origin.

Therefore, it seems that honest people are more likely to migrate. In the long run, this produces changes in the average level of honesty of a territory and is correlated with lower levels of human capital, productivity and earnings growth.

In particular, the great migration of the last century from the south to the north of Italy has substantially changed the degree of honesty of areas of the country as the degree of honesty, measured by this probability of falsification of the date of birth, of those who moved to the north is statistically higher than the degree of those who remained in the south.

It is also interesting that not all areas of southern Italy have suffered the flight of honest people. Some areas experienced a major loss in terms of honesty, while others had no losses at all. Thanks to this variation, it is possible to study to what extent the loss of honesty is correlated with institutional and economic performance indices of different cities in the South.
The data show that the decrease in honesty is significantly correlated with a lower quality of the political class. In particular, mayors and other elected officials of a municipality that has suffered a stronger exodus are also more likely to be chosen from among those who have falsified their date of birth. In this regard, if honesty is measured in terms of accuracy in civil records, elected officials almost perfectly reflect the honesty of their constituents. In addition, municipalities that have suffered a more serious flight of honest people are also more likely to be dissolved due to serious wrongdoing such as corruption or even involvement in organized crime. In terms of economic performance, the flight of honest people correlates with significantly lower values of education, income growth, business value added and labor productivity.

In conclusion, the phenomenon of the "flight of the honest" leads to an impoverishment of social capital and average honesty in places with high emigration, which in turn can have a strong negative impact on the productivity of these same places. At the same time, the flight of honest people could at least partly explain geographical differences in the degree of respect for the rules and civic sense between different areas of Italy and the world. Therefore, the areas where the "flight of the honest" has been most intense seem to be most at risk of being stuck in a vicious circle of a weak propensity to respect the rules and a growing propensity to emigrate among citizens with a greater sense of civic duty.


Bocconi University
Department of Social and Political Sciences