The Conservative Case for Open Borders

This post is written to be cross-posted at, a conservative news and discussion site. For that reason, it may be less congenial to the audience of Open Borders: The Case than some of my posts are, though not, I think, inconsistent. Forgive the length of the post. I thought I could make the argument more briefly when I started.

What I propose to do here– to lay out the conservative case for open borders– may seem like a contradiction in terms. Open borders is a radical proposal, which would accelerate demographic change in America. If conservatism is crudely defined as resistance to change, opening the borders can’t be a conservative policy proposal. Politically, GOP congressmen tend to oppose liberalizing immigration reform even as Democrats support it.

One argument for conservatives supporting, if not open borders, then at least immigration reform (e.g., amnesty for undocumented immigrants), is that it’s good political tactics. Immigration reform might win the votes of the growing Latino demographic for the GOP, or at least give the GOP a chance to make its case to these voters. Some groups within the conservative coalition– devout Christians, libertarians, big business– are (on average) a good deal more favorable to immigration reform than the GOP establishment, and support for immigration reform might increase their enthusiasm at election time. But of course, since immigration reform is not the same thing as open borders, and the GOP coalition is not the same thing as conservatism, all this is of little relevance to the question at hand. What I will argue is that conservatives, not the GOP, should support, not tactically but genuinely, open borders, not merely immigration reform.

First order of business: define terms. What are open borders? What is conservatism?

What is open borders? By open borders, I do not mean that everyone on earth should be able to immigrate to the US and gain citizenship and the vote (that’s a separate issue), nor that anyone on earth should be able to immigrate to the US and collect welfare payments (I definitely oppose that), nor even that anyone on earth should be able to immigrate to the US and enjoy equal opportunities with native-born Americans and be subject to the same tax regime. I mean merely that approximately anyone on earth (but perhaps excepting groups with statistical high risk of criminal behavior or political terrorism) should be able to move to the US physically, live in the US indefinitely, and work. The specific version of an open borders policy I advocate would involve migration taxes and compensation of natives, as a kind of insurance against the negative wage shocks that some US natives would probably suffer under open borders. Many, probably most, natives, would gain, however, partly because skilled Americans’ labor would be complementary with immigrant labor, and partly because of the land value windfall from open borders. The stock market would soar, too, since labor makes capital more productive at the margin. Various economists have estimated that opening the world’s borders to immigration would double world GDP, give or take. Such high estimates are possible because foreigners who move to the US and other rich countries generally a sharp rise in their productivity, and because open borders would lead to epic mass migrations. A recent Gallup poll found that 138 million people want to move to the US. Migration taxes would reduce this, but diaspora dynamics– if a large community of your compatriots is in America, the transition is easier– would tend to increase it.

What is conservatism? That’s a harder question.

Certain attitudes and issue positions are considered typically conservative in America today: lower taxes; “smaller government” (but that needs to be qualified); opposition to abortion; traditional marriage; cultural conservatism; friendliness to Christianity, religion generally, and religious freedom; support for business and free markets; support for a strong military and a hawkish foreign policy; originalism in constitutional interpretation; federalism; patriotism; love of liberty. (Its enemies would add “racial intolerance,” for the most part unfairly.) But of course, liberals can be patriots and Christians too, and everyone claims, in different ways, to favor liberty. Nor do conservatives consistently support for “smaller government” consistent. On the question of whether drugs should be legal, the small government position would definitely be to favor drug legalization: government would be doing one less thing. But whether you prefer to call it nuanced or hypocritical, when it comes to the drug war, conservatives support bigger, more invasive government. It’s libertarians, and some liberals, who want to shrink government on this front. To support a strong military and a hawkish foreign policy, too, is to be pro-big-government on that issue. When it comes to immigration enforcement, it is libertarians and some liberals who want to curtail and constrain state power, while advocating bigger and more invasive government is considered the more “conservative” position.

What political philosophy, if any, undergirds and unifies the various “conservative” issue positions? Why do they come together in a package? If there is a property “conservatism” common to all these policy views, what does it consist in?

Maybe nothing. Perhaps conservatism is just a coalition of disparate interests and/or ideologies, with no philosophical unity. But I think (tentatively) that there is a connection between them, and it has an etymologically obvious starting point: Conservatives want to conserve. They believe in the value of tradition and/or in a more or less permanent and immutable human nature and human good. They respect the past. Chesterton described tradition as “the democracy of the dead,” and the phrase is a decent summary of conservatism. Democracy says that we should respect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom (says Chesterton); tradition says that we should respect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. Conservatives resist the novel, the fashionable, the modern, the transient, and speak up for the good old days, the way things used to be done. They are the spokesmen for the ultimate silent majority: the majority silenced by the grave.

If all we knew was that conservatives conserve, we might conclude that the content of conservatism must be constantly changing. If X is the new fashion in year Y, conservatives should oppose it. But by year Y+30, X is no longer the new fashion, but the old way, the tradition, so conservatives should switch sides and support it. In this case, conservatism would be a wholly relative term, with no substantive continuity over time. Indeed, “conservatism” is to some extent a relative term, whose content has changed a good deal over time, and for just this reason: that the status quo or ancien regime to be defended is constantly changing. The Russian conservative monarchists who opposed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 had a very different idea of how a polity ought to be organized than the conservative Reaganites who opposed the Soviet state in 1980.

And yet the tsarists and the Reaganites had something in common: they opposed communism. And that’s a good example of the “democracy of the dead” principle at work, for communism rejects property rights, and mankind has believed in property rights as long as history can remember, so tsarist and Reaganite conservatives could unite in opposing communism. In general, the idea of “democracy of the dead” helps to show why conservatism isn’t just about following the fashion of 30, or 50, or 100 years ago, as progressivism follows the fashion of today. For democracy of the dead implies a respect for the opinions of all generations of historic mankind, and opinions that became fashionable thirty years ago and are still fashionable today are still the opinions of a tiny minority of mankind. If conservatives are spokesmen for the ultimate silent majority, they will change slowly. If, as conservatives are likely to believe, fashionable opinion is less the cutting edge of moral enlightenment than a succession of foolish fads with an occasional good idea mixed in, then conservatives may indeed be “behind the times,” as the saying goes, but they will also tend to be ahead of them. Here again, the case of communism is a useful example. When socialism was at the zenith of its popularity and promise, conservatives who resisted it looked like they were fighting against the future. In due course, that drab and slavish future passed away, the vibrant and free past rose up against it and conquered it, and the conservative critics of communism looked like prophets.

The phrase “democracy of the dead” does not in itself tell us anything about the content of conservatism. Yet it suggests that there is such content. That is, it suggests that conservatives will tend to agree with each other over time more than fashionable opinion agrees with itself over time. And so I introduce one of the protagonists in my argument, whom I will call “historic mankind.” Imagine that an opinion poll could be conducted of the entire human race over the entire course of history. Many questions could not be included in such an opinion poll. We could not poll historic mankind on questions like Republicans vs. Democrats or Guelfs vs. Ghibellines or even Christianity vs. Islam, nor on whether to ban trans fats or invade Iraq to remove Saddam or privatize Social Security. Most of historic mankind would not know what to make of such questions, as they allude to things that most of historic mankind had never heard of. But there are other questions where the views of historic mankind could be ascertained by a polling agency with time travel capabilities. Here are a few of (what I think would be) historic mankind’s views.

Historic mankind has believed in private property. It has accepted links between goods and persons, usually based on labor, heredity, or trade. Land may belong to a man because he cleared and ploughed it, or because it belonged to his father, or because he bought it. If a man owns a thing, another man cannot use it without his permission. In the case of land and tools, this is because one man’s use of a thing tends to preclude another man’s use of it: you can’t use my axe without my permission, because I may want to use it in the meantime, and at any rate, I need to know where it is. (Also, you might break it.) In the case of a private home, there is another reason: family life, friendship, and especially sex require privacy. A stranger who comes in to get warm may not occupy a space which a family member or friend would have occupied. He may stand quietly in the corner. Yet one can’t quite be oneself around him, nonetheless. One will always be thinking about him. It doesn’t feel quite right not to include him in the conversation. One might pass him on the street quite indifferently, but here, in the home, a higher standard of civility is the rule, and one has to include him and inquire after his needs. He can’t be a stranger here; he must be a guest. And so one’s home ought to be one’s private property, from which one can exclude others, so that one can enjoy peace of mind.

Modern economics has shed a good deal of light on why private property promotes economic efficiency. Conservatives may borrow the arguments of free market economists to defend property rights at times, but they have their own reasons, practical, traditional, moral, intuitive, or rooted in their own feelings about the good life for man.

Historic mankind has believed in marriage and family. It has celebrated the mutual attraction of men and women, and had much fun with their differences and misunderstandings, but it has also been deadly serious about preventing the mutual deceit and exploitation to which the sexes are prone. It has devalued unchaste women and its words for them have connotations of contempt. It has been a bit more indulgent towards cads and philanderers, but guarded its daughters against such men. It has meant by marriage, first, a man’s right to exclusive sexual access to his wife, second, cohabitation and broad domestic sharing, and it has regarded the intent and effort to bear and rear children as an obligation of spouses to one another and to the community. More often than not, it has seen death, by the law or in a duel, as a proper penalty for adultery, and sometimes for fornication, too. It has encouraged, not vetoed, the natural affection people feel towards their children, and allowed this natural preference to express itself in inheritance laws, even at the expense of perpetuating inequality. Historic mankind has not condoned “free love.”

Modern sociobiology may serve as a useful key to all these attitudes of historic mankind, for those who have forgotten them. It shows why men need marriage to be exclusive and women need it to be permanent, why parents and other relatives have a stake in a couple’s fertility, and why temptations to abandonment and adultery are so strong and society’s role as a guarantor of marital integrity is so important.

Historic mankind has believed in gender complementarity, with men’s role more public and women’s more private, and in male leadership. It has given public leadership roles mainly to men, and held that husbands have authority over wives. Women’s place seems always to have been in the home to a greater extent than men’s was. Sometimes they were confined there almost all the time, more or less against their will, not an appealing practice in my view. By contrast, the ideal wife as described in Proverbs 31:10-31 is not only strikingly industrious but strikingly commercial, making linen and selling it, even to foreigners. Yet even then she seems to spend most of her time at home. A cynic might say that the subordination of women is an evil that merely reflects men’s abuse of their superior strength to keep women down, but a conservative cannot say such things. Only a progressive would be willing to slander his ancestors this way.

Anyway, a sensible reading of history suggests that women are more private, men more public, by preference– by their own preference, that is, and that of their spouses. That “public man” has been said in praise and “public woman” as abuse is not accidental, for women will tend to feel pride if crowds cheer for her husband, while men have felt uneasy if crowds cheer for his wife. By the same token, a woman who stays home is the pride of her husband, the heart and soul of domestic bliss, while a man who stays home is lazy. Historic mankind has not believed, exactly, that men should be breadwinners and women homemakers. That distinction is peculiar to the modern economy, where specialization, trade, and economies of scale have raised the productivity of factories and offices and reduced the importance of home production. Historically, much economic activity took place in the home, and women participated in it. But historic mankind has assigned more of the day-to-day tasks of childbearing to women.

Historic mankind has believed in courage, justice, mercy, faith, prudence, mercy, and temperance; in moral right and wrong; in stories and adventures; in natural law. The last phrase is simply a way of saying that some rules of conduct do not come from any legislator but in here in human nature. If the government legalized murder, it would still be wrong. How differently the content of natural law was perceived varies across countries, I’m not sure. I have already mentioned property and marriage, institutions with a moral aspect, as human universals. So, even more clearly, is unprovoked violence. Historic mankind has often used religion as a means of teaching right and wrong and inculcating virtue.

Historic mankind has believed in law and order, and in government and just war. Civilized people have generally lived under kings or republics, and acknowledged their power to be the enforcers of natural and customary law and/or to make positive law, binding on their own subjects. They seem to have granted to authorized rulers prerogatives to use violence that went beyond what was acceptable for individuals. They have often celebrated peace, and doubtless have tended to prefer it, yet they have definitely regarded war as sometimes necessary. Historic mankind has never accepted the pacifist dodge of enjoying civilization’s benefits while denouncing the military means by which those benefits are protected. Nor has historic mankind been above enjoying war, desiring it, participating in it with gusto, singing songs about it afterwards. Yet while historic mankind believes in government, it has not believed in “sovereignty” in the modern sense of Hobbes and Weber. For one thing, historic mankind has often approved private as well as public war: the duel, the blood-feud. This contradicts Weber’s principle that the state enjoys “a monopoly of legitimate violence.” And it has often supported rebels, or approved and admired rebels when it did not dare to support them. It is safe to say that it has often complained about the kings of the earth, or even hated them, in the privacy of the home.

Historic mankind has recognized and accepted a good deal of inequality and hierarchy. One reason it has not sympathized with feminist indignation at gender specialization and the subordination of wives to husbands is that it has not, in general, found inequality and hierarchy offensive. Men, too, have usually been subordinated to somebody, as serfs, slaves, soldiers, vassals, wage employees, etc. It is a rare man who has been fully his own master, and not necessarily an enviable one. Think of a frontiersman, deprived of female company, often sleeping on the ground, not always knowing where his next meal is coming from. Today, there is widespread admiration for the rugged independence of the self-employed, but more of us seem to prefer getting a steady paycheck from a big company that tells us what to do. Hierarchy is often more efficient than governance by committees and consensus, or than atomistic individualism. A few people at the top may know more than the rest, and can act quickly in a crisis, or seize an opportunity. Perhaps a majority of mankind has lived under monarchs of one kind or another, and the republican alternative, government by impersonal rules, always still involves some kind of hierarchy. Hierarchy is sometimes meritocratic, giving greater responsibilities to those whom natural talent, good upbringing, and personal choices have made better able to bear them, and usually granting correspondingly greater rewards. But even if abilities are equal, hierarchy has structural advantages which justify subordinating some men to others. Historic mankind has not held “equality of opportunity” to be an appropriate goal, but, more realistically, has accepted not only that some must be richer and more powerful than others, but that one’s station in life will usually be affected by the circumstances of one’s birth.

Historic mankind has believed in patriotism, in love of one’s tribe, city, or country, variously defined. It has admired and loved those who fought bravely for their homelands. People have sometimes even admired the patriotic courage of their enemies. Thus the Greeks admired Hector as much as any of their own heroes. Thus medieval Catholic Christendom admired Saladin. Historic mankind has not judged people by utilitarian universalist standards, or given cosmopolitan humanitarianism a central place among the virtues. A bias in favor of one’s own place and people has been regarded, at best, as noble and proper, at worst, as forgivable.

Historic mankind has not believed in democracy, or is at best neutral. Democracy was largely unknown before it was instituted by the Athenians in the late 6th century BC. From there, it spread to a few other Greek cities, but it led to disaster for Athens in the Pelopponesian War of the late 5th century BC. Athenian democracy was restored for another century, though Athens never recovered its greatness before falling to Philip of Macedon. The verdict of history generally regarded Athenian democracy as a cautionary tale, in spite of the cultural brilliance of the city in its democratic golden age. The Founding Fathers of the United States knew their ancient history, and feared democracy. In the later 19th century and more so in the 20th century, democracy became popular and received a good deal of lip service, but in an opinion poll of historic mankind, the votes of the past few generations would carry little weight.

Historic mankind has not believed in the welfare state or in a social safety net. Poor relief has sometimes hardly existed at all, and at other times has been channeled through families, communities, and non-state actors such as churches and charities.

Now, in all of the above cases, conservatives are closer to the attitudes of historic mankind than are liberals and progressives, or than libertarians, where libertarians and conservatives disagree. I won’t demonstrate this for every issue, but a few examples will illustrate. Conservatives are strong defenders of private property, advocating low taxes, deregulation, and a small public sector. Against liberals and libertarians who advocate equal recognition and respect for all sexual lifestyles, conservatives have championed the moral normalcy of marriage and the family, and the sinfulness and destructiveness of casual sex. In the face of feminism’s frontal attack on gender roles and male leadership, conservatives have sometimes given ground, but at least in relative terms have tended to stand for the legitimacy and perhaps even the desirability of women staying home. On moral questions, conservatives have championed objective truth and personal responsibility against the liberal-left tendency to blame people’s bad behavior on “society” or to indulge in moral relativism. Though they participate with others in the cult of democracy, conservatives are probably less likely than others to make the bone-headed mistake of treating as synonyms the words “freedom” and “democracy” (two things as different as food and drink, or fire and air). Conservatives tend to defend inequality and hierarchy against the levellers of the left. They love the military, advocate respect for elders, and are instinctively pro-corporate. In the tug-of-war over redistribution, they pull for less of it, and they are skeptical of the welfare state, sometimes challenging its legitimacy in toto, sometimes denying the effectiveness of this or that program or highlighting deleterious unintended consequences, while always complaining about the cost.

The “democracy of the dead” principle shows the sense in conservatives’ seeming contradictory attitudes to government. Governments today are much bigger and more invasive than governments in the past. They employ more people, spend more of society’s resources, and interfere more with people’s right to use their own property the way they wish. Conservatives tend to oppose that. At the same time, some modern leftists and libertarians have cast doubt on government’s traditional law-and-order functions, and conservatives rush to its defense. And the liberal mainstream has tried to eliminate government’s traditional function in regulating public morals, and in professing and upholding religion. Here, too, conservatives tend to be closer to the opinions of historic mankind.

If a bias in favor of the opinions of historic mankind is one key to the content of conservatism, two crucial elements in modern American conservatism do not fit the pattern: (1) Christianity, and (2) free markets. I don’t mean simply that most of historic mankind was not Christian and did not believe in free markets. I mean that Christianity and free markets are, in their own nature, not at all conservative. They are disruptive forces that push for continual change and improvement.

Christianity is an inexhaustible fountain of moral revolutions-from-below. Its ethics are unappeasably quixotic, and Christians ignore most of the ethical teachings of their faith most of the time, because they are so bafflingly sublime and demanding that one hardly knows how to apply them. Yet even the very intermittent and imperfect efforts of Christians to put the teachings of Jesus into practice have repeatedly changed the world. It is Christianity that humbled the pride of tyrants, freed the slaves, made the world monogamous, proclaimed the rights of man, created the universities and the first democratic parliaments, and placed romantic love at the heart of marriage. It might seem that even if Christianity represented a moral revolution when it first appeared, now, two thousand years later, it must have become the status quo, a conservative force. But the agenda of righteousness is never exhausted. In the Roman empire under Constantine, with the abolition of crucifixion, a person of little faith might have felt the Christian moral revolution was complete, but the great preachers– John Chrysostom, for example– still found plenty to denounce. Several Christian moral revolutions have followed, which supply much of the content of modern secular morality. Thus, the modern secular liberal knows there should be no slaves, but is not sure why, and if left to himself, is likely to turn socialist and enslave nations, without feeling qualms of conscience, because he is not using the word “slave.”

With respect to the opinions of historic mankind, Christianity picks and chooses, affirming some, rejecting others, but in general, it does not want to conserve anything so much as to redeem everything. It has enough practical quietism to accept and accommodate hierarchy and inequality to a considerable extent, yet it never really blesses it. It has preached against the rich from the very beginning, and Jesus said that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16). It insists on its own lofty model of the family, agreeing with historic mankind that marriage is between a man and a woman, but rejecting historic mankind’s tolerance for polygamy, divorce, and prostitution. It blesses high-minded patriotism up to a point, but ultimately, its ethics are resolutely universalist, and Christ demands a loyalty that trumps all allegiances to family, city, tribe, state, or nation. It has reluctantly permitted war in extremis, yet it insists that peace is more blessed, and it does not honor conquerors, substituting for them its own peaceful heroes, beginning with Jesus and the apostles.

As for the free market, it is definitely conservative in one respect: it affirms the need for private property. Other than that, it is a force for perpetual flux, progress, and change: new firms, new products, new technologies, new fashions, ever-increasing wealth, but lots of “creative destruction.” It sees job losses and corporate bankruptcies, and approves. Markets have a Darwinian aspect: only the fittest firms survive. Markets tends to reward good character, hard work, and inventiveness, but they are not meritocratic on principle, and don’t mind making a man rich just because he happened to be at the right place at the right time to do something really useful. Markets do not particularly respect the past, nor did the past respect them. Historic mankind usually had a low opinion of merchants, despised moneylenders, saw the profit motive as corrupt, and considered competition bad. Free market economics is an intellectual revolution that dates to Adam Smith and the classical economists, who came with an optimistic message, yet in a way a cynical one, too, about how pursuit of self-interest tends to promote the common good, at any rate within the framework of law and order and free exchange. This insight changed the world and made it capitalist. After two hundred years, the free market still isn’t a conservative force. It shakes things up, and looks towards the future.

Modern American conservatism is an uneasy yet fertile combination of these three things: deference to the opinions of historic mankind, Christianity, and free markets. Sometimes the three elements of conservatism agree with and reinforce each other. Thus, merely conservative skepticism about big government and the welfare state as an innovation and a departure from tradition is reinforced by Christian skepticism based on the idea that charity should be voluntary and free-marketeer skepticism about interference with the market and destruction of incentives to work and save. In other cases, there is less agreement. Conservative support for property rights can be buttressed by free-market arguments and is also affirmed, up to a point, by Christianity. Yet Christians also have a tradition of preaching against the rich. Free-marketeers might like conservatives’ emphasis on personal responsibility, but they may not buy into the whole moral agenda of historic mankind– they are likely to be indifferent to sexual promiscuity, for example– while Christians will often want to carry ethical idealism to extremes that conservatives are uncomfortable with. On polygamy, slavery, and religious toleration, modern American conservatives side with Christianity against the prevailing opinions of historic mankind. In somewhat different ways, both free markets and Christianity favor a fluid and topsy-turvy social order, so modern American conservatives are unwilling to reconcile themselves to stable class stratification, even if powerful constituencies might like that, and historic mankind has tolerated it. And conservatives often find their nationalistic impulses resisted by both their Christian and free-marketeer allies.

Opposition to immigration, or at any rate an insistence on getting illegal immigration under control, is part of the usual list of “conservative” issue positions, but does it belong there? That Christianity and free-market capitalism are pro-immigration, I think everyone dimly understands. Migration restrictions are exactly the sort of inefficient government interference in the economy that free-market economists have always denounced. Immigrants are disproportionately hard-working and entrepreneurial. American corporations would love to bring in more of them. As for Christianity, the Bible is unabashedly pro-immigrant. We could deduce from the Golden Rule that we shouldn’t trap people in unfree or destitute countries against their will, but the Bible states our Christian duty more directly. Perhaps surprisingly, the Old Testament law, reputedly so harsh, repeatedly insists that the Israelites must not mistreat foreigners. No provisions were made for excluding peaceful foreigners by force, and we see in the Book of Ruth that foreigners could freely enter the land of Israel to live off the leftover grain that Israelites were instructed to leave in the fields for the poor. Again and again, the Mosaic law groups together “the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner” as classes kindness to whom was specially urged. In the New Testament, Jesus says, “I was a stranger and ye took Me in,” to the saved souls (Matthew 25:43). When Christians led the anti-slavery movement, the higher ethics of the New Testament had to trump the endorsement of slavery in the Mosaic law (albeit in a relatively mild form), as well as New Testament passages that said, “Slaves, obey your masters” (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22). Christian advocates of open borders have no such difficulties. The Bible is a consistent ally. Also, if Christians take seriously the command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), they should be eager to let foreigners from Islamic lands, or from China and India, to emigrate from countries where Christianity is rare and little tolerated, to a country full of thriving churches.

What about the opinions of historic mankind? Hasn’t historic mankind affirmed the rights of governments to decide who can come into their territories? This is a difficult empirical question, but I think the answer is basically “no.” Comprehensive passport regimes are a 20th-century innovation, arguably even a side-effect of what Jonah Goldberg calls “liberal fascism.” Before 1914 was the great age of open borders, and also, please note, of small government and Victorian family values and free markets and public Christianity and other things that conservatives like. There were precedents for passport regimes, usually at a city level, occasionally as one of the excesses of authoritarian states. In the High Middle Ages, the university of Paris recruited students from all over Europe. I’m pretty sure they did not need visas from the French government. Medieval pilgrims, who traveled all over Europe to holy sites, might need the blessing of a priest, but as far as I’ve been able to discover in a bit of online research, they didn’t need any particular legal permission from the governments of the territories in which they were passing. That certain medieval expulsions of the Jews, e.g., from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492, were exceptions, departures from normal practice, is evident from the fact that they are datable events. When the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem restricted pilgrims’ access to the holy sites there, the Crusades were considered an appropriate response. That makes some sense. Why, after all, should a government have a right forcibly to restrict access to a territory? Whence could they derive such a right? Walls to mark borders, like Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain and the Great Wall of China, are rare and were for protection against invaders. Paleoconservatives like to pretend that illegal immigrants are “invaders,” as if they didn’t understand the difference between armed invaders and peaceful traders or settlers, but of course historic mankind always knew the difference. They have let traders come and go. Hospitality is a chief theme of The Odyssey, in which Odysseus’s adventures bring him into one country after another, uninvited. For Homer, and presumably for his audience, those who treat Odysseus well are the good characters, those who treat him badly are the villains.

Historic mankind sometimes treated travelers badly, but it didn’t condone treating travelers badly. It has not recognized the rights of governments to regulate all entry to a territory. It has not partitioned the globe into “sovereign” nation-states with a right to decide their own membership and insulate themselves physically from foreigners. It has tended, rather, to recognize men’s rights to move free upon the earth. It has praised hospitality. It has allowed people to invite guests from abroad without asking leave of the state. These matters are always complex and it is hard to make any generalization that is precisely true, but I will venture to say that open borders would not be an innovation, but rather a restoration, the end of a usurpation by the state of powers that historic mankind has known it ought not to have.

Open borders would fit nicely into the family of conservative issue positions. Conservatives would be more credible advocates of family values if they weren’t supporting policies that have separated a million family members by force, and if they held that families separated by national borders shouldn’t require the government’s permission to reunite. Conservatives would be more credible advocates of small government if they wanted government to stop micromanaging immigration. Conservatives would be more credible advocates of general liberty if they advocated freedom to travel, to invite relatives, to associate with foreigners. Conservatives would be more credible advocates of free enterprise if they allowed businesses to hire whom they wish. Conservatives would be more credible patriots if they welcomed lovers of America to this country, regardless of where they were born. Conservatives would be more credible constitutionalists if they advocated an immigration regime more like that which reigned when the Constitution was in its full health. Conservatives would be more credible advocates of law and order if they wanted to repeal an unenforceable law that ensures widespread lawbreaking while having nothing to do with the maintenance of public morality, and that often forces legitimate businesses to participate to break the law in order to get workers and serve their customers. Conservatives would be more credible advocates of religious freedom if they welcomed religious refugees without subjecting them to tortuous and discretionary bureaucratic processes.

Perhaps I am conceding too little to conservatism in the crudest sense, to conservatism as mere resistance to any change. However strong its basis in the opinions of historic mankind, however Christian and free-marketeer it is, open borders would change America, a lot. This is true in racial terms: America would lose its white majority a lot sooner than is currently projected. Maybe that’s below the belt. Race is supposed to not matter. But cities would expand, and there would be more visible poverty. We would hear more languages other than English spoken on the streets. Ethnic neighborhoods, fascinating or ominous according to taste, would proliferate. Even if this growth leads to many exciting new opportunities, what’s wrong with a little lazy-minded reluctance to adapt to change? What’s wrong with valuing “the culture,” even if we don’t clearly know what we mean by that, and trying to protect it? Let the Christian idealist reject such complacency if he must. Let the free-marketeer prioritize individual liberty if he must. But commonsense conservatives just want to keep things the same.

Here I would bring in gay marriage as an example of how things don’t stay the same. I don’t understand what people mean when they talk about limiting immigration to protect American culture. What is it, exactly, that Americans are supposed to have in common? I share with historic mankind, and with most of contemporary mankind, the knowledge that marriage is between a man and a woman, but the rising generation in America has contrived to become ignorant of this fact. What culture is being preserved here? The irony is that conservatives are often quite despairing about trends in American culture. They see themselves losing the culture war. Often, they are on the side, not only of the broad majority of historic mankind, but of the broad majority of contemporary mankind as well. Take a look at Wikipedia’s map of the world by LGBT rights. Most of the world’s population lives in countries that do not recognize gay marriage; in many countries, it’s even illegal. For the record, I don’t want to outlaw homosexuality. But I would welcome a flood of immigrants from such countries, not only because most of them would find higher incomes, more freedom, and more exposure to Christianity here than at home, but because they would bring with them certain healthy, social conservative attitudes that our country sorely needs more of. Remember that it’s since the borders were closed that we got the New Deal, the Great Society, the 1960s radicals, feminism, legalization of abortion, the rise in divorce and illegitimacy, the gay marriage movement. In the age of open borders, American culture seems to be have been more stable. Is that an accident? Or do immigrants help to correct the local deviations of fashionable opinion, and keep us moored to the general opinions of mankind?

If open borders became one of the proud American traditions that conservatives wanted to restore, as against the impulse of the progressive left to micromanage everything through the government, a first step would be to stop pressing for more enforcement. In negotiations with the Democrats, conservatives could focus on creating guest worker programs to meet employers’ needs and delaying or denying immigrants access to the vote and especially to welfare programs. They could turn populist and advocate transfers to low-skilled natives harmed by immigration, as a special transitional measure, without abandoning their general skepticism about redistribution. They could cement alliances with big business and the Catholic Church. They could make inroads into the Latino demographic by nobly attacking Obama’s deportations. They could dispel any lingering suspicions of racism, appealing to the definitely post-racist young generation. They would lose some people who perhaps it’s better to lose, but they’d expand the base on other fronts. Who’s with me?

2 thoughts on “The Conservative Case for Open Borders”

  1. Interesting points. I don’t identify as conservative, although I used to, and I still find more to admire (or at least ponder about) in conservatism than probably many people in my demographic do. Regarding marriage, I find it particularly strange how blasé people of all political stripes have been about “marriage equality” when it comes to cross-border relationships. Much ink is split over marriage equality for homosexuals, but yet active oppression of people who marry foreigners is pretty much par for the course, even in the “developed” world.

    One of the few probably unambiguously good things about the European project (the internal open borders of the Schengen zone being the main thing) is how European law fundamentally enshrines the right to family life. European law (not just EU law, mind; the European Convention on Human Rights is an institution separate from the EU) has done a lot to protect the rights of Europeans and European residents who marry citizens of another state. The state’s border regimes are held to a high bar here because the right of the human being to have a spouse and a family are sacrosanct; the state cannot simply arbitrarily deny a citizen or a resident the right to live with their family.

    This triumph unfortunately seems to have gone fairly unremarked, at least outside rarefied liberal human rights law and Euro-optimist wonk circles. When I see the European “right to family life” being discussed in the mainstream, it tends to be painted in a negative light because of its implications for migration — how dare European law protect a foreigner’s right to live with his own family in their country!

    Unfortunately many European states, especially the UK, seem very intent on rolling back the triumphs of this European law. The stories coming out of the UK now are particularly shocking and galling: essentially now you may only marry a foreigner if you are rich enough. See for instance, In a time when love is allowed to cross bonds of race and even gender, it seems appalling that we continue to allow simple nationality alone as sufficient grounds for the state to restrict people’s right to marriage and family life.

  2. Thanks John. The evolution of human rights thought and human rights law is a very interesting front for the open borders cause. I agree that human rights must often extend to the “larger body” of a person’s affections and attachments. A person’s spouse is a part of their flourishing, in a strange but real sense even a part of their very selves. It would be nice if this were more widely appreciated.

    Of course, a liberalization of immigration by spouses and fiancés would have severe “incentive compatibility” problems unless it were part of a general liberalization of migration. Already, there are serious problems with fake marriages for purposes of immigration already.

    I suppose in a way it’s obvious why gay marriage has made more progress than the right to marry foreigners: it has a powerful domestic lobby, and many people perceive it as costless. Easing the path of love for those who want to marry foreigners sort of needs to be embedded in a general liberalization of migration, and that will affect ordinary people’s lives in more obvious ways.

    I suppose my opinion of the gay marriage lobby is too low to expect gay marriage to provide a useful analog for opening the borders to foreign spouses. But I’ll be glad to be proven wrong.

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