open borders for conservatives

A few weeks ago, I spoke about open borders at Wellesley College as a guest of the Freedom Project. My talk summarized the view that open borders is a “common grounds” position. People who are liberal and conservative should support it. It is trans-ideological and bipartisan in nature. The liberal argument for open borders is very easy to defend. The best way to end poverty and lessen inequality is simply letting people move to places where they are more economically productive. For libertarians, the issue is equally straightforward. Migration restriction is nothing but a barrier to trade and personal freedom.

The case for conservatives is a little more subtle because there is no single intuition that motivates conservative critiques of migration. In my talk at Wellesley, I broke it down this way. Each bullet point merits a longer discussion, but I present the summary here:

  • “Retail conservatives:” The rank and file conservative might oppose migration because immigrants reduce employment for natives, increase crime, or create undue stress on social services. In these cases, research either shows that there is simply no evidence to back it up or that negative effects are way, way overblown. Additionally, retail conservatives who promote family values and self-reliance should applaud immigrants because they improve their economic situation through hard work, not hand outs.
  • “Philosophical conservatives:” There is a strand of more sophisticated, philosophical conservatives that are motivated by the writings of folks like Burke and Oakeshott. One might summarize their view as a suspicion of radical change and social engineering. If so, the they should vehemently oppose closed borders. What is more radical than drawing a line and proclaiming that people on one side can’t move to the other? Aren’t migration controls an attempt at social engineering by legislators? Don’t borders violate the organic social order of communities?
  • “Cultural conservatives:” Some conservative migration critics are worried that migration might undermine the valuable things about Western culture. I think there are a few sensible responses. First, Western culture has survived socialism, fascism, communism and a whole lot more. America is much tougher than waves of low skilled labor. Second, in public opinion research, one often finds that migrants aren’t terribly different than natives in terms of political opinion. Third, Western societies tend to “chill out” migrants. If you want to decrease the anti-Western sentiment in the world, let people migrate to the West and their kids will be much less hostile than those back in the home country.

To sum up, there are a number of conservative criticisms of open borders and there are a lot of very intuitive and strong responses.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 12, 2016 at 12:01 am

8 Responses

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  1. Perhaps there is no evidence that immigration has had an effect on employment. In that case, please kindly help me advise the many young people I know, typically from 16 to 24, who simply cannot find work of any kind, especially not in the summer or after school.

    My friends and I did everything, such as newspaper delivery, landscaping, construction, taxi driving, fast food, delivery, warehousing, and so on. But now the people doing these jobs are not kids. They are full-fledged adult immigrants, trying to support families, with a few jobs each. They work much harder and more capably, for the same money or less.

    And this is not just my observation. Everyone I know who knows young people, as a parent or as a teacher, sees the same thing. The service economy is doing great around here, one reason it’s a favorite among immigrants.

    The same sources that tell you this is not a problem — perhaps they might tell me what to say to these young people,. because my own experience offers no guide.


    Donald Frazier

    February 12, 2016 at 1:27 am

  2. You’re confusing libertarianism (skepticism of state action, even if it’s traditional) and philosophical conservatism (skepticism of change, even if it’s in a laissez-faire direction). This is the kind of distinction Hayek had in mind when he said “why I am not a conservative.”

    However Burkeanism also argues against radical changes in the other direction, such as eliminating jus soli.



    February 12, 2016 at 2:22 am

  3. Hi, Donald:

    There are many reasons for unemployment. In general, young people have a hard time compared to older people when they look for jobs. Perhaps you live in an area, like I do, where jobs are scarce and the economy is poor overall. It might be that the folks you know don’t possess the skills sought by employers in your area.

    What I am fairly certain of is that immigration, as a general rule, is usually not a contributor to unemployment. The reason is that immigrants must buy the same clothes, food, and housing that natives do. This leads to the employment for other people.

    If you are interested in the issue of immigration and unemployment, please consult this article by Michael Clemens ( He reviews a lot of research on immigration and finds that in most cases, immigration is not a driver of low wages or unemployment. The one exception is that in *some* cases, workers with less than a high school degree experience a *small* decrease in income. This is the “overblown” result. It shows a small negative it come. It’s important, but not catastrophic by any means.

    Thanks for reading.



    February 12, 2016 at 2:24 am

  4. Gabriel: You make a valid point, but in my experience, conservatives often rely on anti-statist arguments, so they are important to address.



    February 12, 2016 at 2:26 am

  5. Also, some folks see libertarianism as a type of conservatism (which I don’t). That is another reason I address that point.



    February 12, 2016 at 2:26 am

  6. Reblogged this on Anthony Sandoval and commented:
    Open Borders… All the way!!!



    February 12, 2016 at 3:09 am

  7. “There are many reasons for unemployment. In general, young people have a hard time compared to older people when they look for jobs. Perhaps you live in an area, like I do, where jobs are scarce and the economy is poor overall. It might be that the folks you know don’t possess the skills sought by employers in your area.”

    I think what Frazier is getting at is that the US labor market has significantly deteriorated over the last few decades (as measured by wages, HH income, labor-force participation rate) and that the one actual political group most interested in opening borders (business conservatives) have the most to gain from increasing the supply of labor and maintaining or even exacerbating the conditions that have led to US labor market decline.

    I understand you to support open borders independent of any impact it might have on already deteriorated advanced economy labor markets. And if I squint my eyes and see immigration as a purely moral question about movement, I see your point. But you might also want to see Frazier’s point about advanced economy labor markets, and maybe develop a better answer, if you hope to finally expand the audience for open borders.

    If I’ve misrepresented Frazier’s point of view, or your own, I apologize. I also apologize for being a mere critic here–I simply have no idea how to balance the human right of movement with the actually existing problem of the US labor market. Pushing one completely over the other seems no way to go, however.



    February 12, 2016 at 8:51 pm

  8. What happens however to democracy? health care, pensions, education etc. Lets imagine a person has just walked, flown, etc right across an international border assuming that the life they are moving toward is in their mind better. Now they’re there.

    They’re standing outside a coffee shop on a busy street. Where do they go? They have no job lined up. Maybe they have a couch to sleep on for a few weeks. Without visa restrictions, they can look for a job once they’re in their destination – I assume they don’t have to show proof of having funds to support themselves etc. Where is the housing coming from once they stay out their welcome?

    Theres an election scheduled for tomorrow. Can they vote? Tax season is in six months, will they have a national ID given to them on the day of arrival to track their tax payments? They walked in with a fairly serious illness – are they walking straight into the ER for their kidney transplant, do they go to the bottom of the national list, or are they put on a waiting list that is global? They come from a culture where crime x (corruption, rape, squatting, content piracy whatever) is endemic and rarely prosecuted – what laws apply to them now? If its the laws of the ‘land’, then we’re back to nation states. If they cant vote, then its not really open borders expect for jobs. Freedom of movement for work is different from other movement – e.g. if you move for work which people around the world do far more often than you make out, do you also immediately bring your family? There are a lot of restrictions on movement of families and children currently. Is it open borders for everyone under every condition?

    A substantial amount of the rules in society apply to that divide between citizens and non-citizens; e.g. I’m a legal migrant, I cant apply for public benefits or run for office or vote or adopt children under the same laws. So that means that we will be rejigging all of society for total equality at a global scale. How does that work?


    Peter Haus

    February 20, 2016 at 12:39 pm

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