Academic Sources: Aleman and Woods on Travel Restrictions



A mantra of this blog has been that whatever happens at the official level, the outside world should be doing its best to “get people in, get people out.” The idea is not simply the “hole in the fence” strategy of fomenting collapse through an outpouring of refugees; China is not going to let that happen. It is also related to how information affects citizens’, and even elites’, conceptions of politics and the national interest.

We recently came across a an interesting piece by political scientists Jose Aleman and Dwayne Woods (at Fordham and Purdue respectively) entitled "No Way Out: Travel Restrictions and Authoritarian Regimes" at Migration and Development. Aleman and Woods walk through the pros and cons for authoritarian regimes of letting their citizens travel. On the one hand, it could provide an escape valve for those who can afford it, making them more compliant at home. (Andrei Lankov recently suggested to me that such a motive may account for a recent relaxation of North Korean elite travel). On the other hand, you run the risk that travelers may see the advantages of more open societies and recognize the foibles of their own.

Drawing on data on travel restrictions collated by the CIRI Human Rights Data Project, Aleman and Woods set out to test the proposition using a panel (random intercept) set-up on 61 countries for the 1982-2008 period, excluding democracies and a handful of other hard-to-categorize regime types. They are rightly cautious on the findings of the exercise given the complex links between travel restrictions, civil liberties and regime change. But the findings are nonetheless suggestive:

  • Full autocracies (as measured by widely used Polity data) restrict travel more than competitive authoritarian regimes (or democracies, which are clearly most liberal). Not surprisingly, North Korea is at the most restrictive end of the spectrum.
  • Freedom of movement is positively and significantly associated with higher levels of and changes over time in civil rights scores; more open travel, more civil liberties.
  • This effect is partly, but not wholly, related to emigration policies. Countries with restrictions on travel have lower rates of emigration than countries without such restrictions, controlling for population and income levels. But modeling around this shows that there are in fact distinct “travel restriction” and “emigration” channels.
  • However, since civil liberties have the potential to destabilizing authoritarian rule by increasing the costs of repression, authoritarian regimes that impose travel restrictions are actually more stable--ie., less prone to breakdown--than those that do not.

These results are a little paradoxical from the standpoint of policy. They suggest that the North Korean regime is well-aware of the risks of relaxing travel, and precisely for that reason is cautious. But this may depend on a complex dynamic associated with maintaining elite loyalty: that it is not the average citizen that will chafe at such restraints, but loyalists who will feel cloistered. Will lifting travel restrictions have the effect of buying them off—making them more comfortable with the status quo—or exposing them to information that is infectious? From a policy standpoint, the answer to this question does not ultimately matter. Fewer restrictions are normatively better than more and we should therefore place our bet on the latter and do everything we can to make sure that we are not the source of the restrictions.

Other Academic Sources posts.

Faisal Z. Ahmed on the effect of remittances on the longevity of autocracies.

Jessica Weeks on types of autocracy and propensity for conflict.

Regime type and growth

Levitsky and Way on the durability of authoritarian regimes

Aid and Leader Survival

Emilie Hafner-Burton on the international human rights regime

Kathryn Sikkink's Justice Cascade

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