Citizen preference for reduced immigration

See also legal versus illegal and collective property rights

This argument against open borders can be considered a “democratic fundamentalist” argument because it’s not fundamentally about concrete harms of immigration but rather about citizens’ desire for lower immigration, regardless of whether the desire is based on factually or morally correct premises. More precisely, restrictionists view citizens’ desire for lower levels of immigration as an additional reason to reduce immigration, over and above whatever the rationales may be behind that desire.

This argument fits in well with the collective property rights objection to the libertarian case for open borders.

There are many aspects to this:

  • The first is what citizens have told pollsters about what they think of current immigration levels. For more on this, see the relevant section of the polling data on migration page.
  • The second is citizens’ revealed preferences about matters like population size, which are affected by immigration. Some restrictionists have argued that, through near-replacement-level birthrates, citizens have revealed a preference for a stable or slow-growing national population, and large-scale immigration subverts that preference.

The argument has been made by Peter Brimelow in his book Alien Nation: Common Sense about America’s Immigration Disaster and by Mark Krikorian in his book The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal.


One type of counterargument denies the significance of citizen preferences in and of itself. Another type of counterargument is that since immigration laws affect both citizens and foreigners, “democratic” principles should entail that they be decided not just by citizens, but by the whole world. Here are some related links:

  • Nathanael Smith has argued that immigration restrictions are about as undemocratic as one can get, because the people most affected (prospective immigrants) are precisely the people who do not have a say in immigration laws. He makes this argument at length in his book Principles of a Free Society, in a TCS Daily article, and also in this blog post comment on Bryan Caplan’s blog post:

    Democracy is a good system because the people who live under the laws get to have a say in making them. Immigration restrictions are the mathematical limiting case of undemocratic law: the set people who are on the receiving end of them is the exact inverse of the set of people who have a say in making them. That’s why they’re so stupid and wicked, and utterly illegitimate.

  • Would a World Plebiscite Lead to Open Borders? by Bryan Caplan, May 18, 2012, for EconLog.

Quotes from Krikorian’s book

During the debate over the pivotal 1965 Immigration Act, the law that helped usher in the current immigration era, policy makers specifically rejected the idea that the proposed changes would restart mass immigration. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, for instance, wrote in the New York Times in 1964 that the new immigration bill then being debated “would increase the amount of authorized immigration by only a fraction.”18 His brother, Senate Immigration Subcommittee chair Edward Kennedy (a position he still holds today), assured the nation that “under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same.” And in 1965, new attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach testified that “this bill is not designed to increase or accelerate the numbers of newcomers permitted to come to America. Indeed, this measure provides for an increase of only a small fraction in permissible immigration.” In a textbook case of unintended consequences, the 1965 law touched off the biggest immigration wave in our history. How big? Immigration over the past four decades accounts for more than one third of all the people ever to move to what is now the United States, starting with the first Siberian to cross the Bering land bridge in search of game.19 The American people have never supported this social-engineering project. Poll after poll has shown that only a tiny minority of Americans want increased immigration, while most want cuts. A 2006 Zogby poll, for instance, found that when presented with the actual level of immigration, only 2 percent of Americans thought immigration was too low, while 66 percent thought it was too high, a result which was consistent across a variety of groups.20 The results were similar in another 2006 poll that specifically asked likely voters about immigration’s role in population growth.21 When informed that current immigration policies would add 100 million people to the population over the next fifty years, respondents were asked what the United States should do about the level of immigration; 64 percent wanted to reduce it, while 3 percent wanted it increased. When presented with the statement “The population increase caused by the present level of immigration will negatively impact the quality of life in America, such as causing more congestion, overcrowding and pollution,” 66 percent agreed, 31 percent disagreed. And finally, respondents were asked what they thought would happen to the quality of life in their particular communities if those communities experienced the same one third increase in population that immigration would cause for the nation as a whole. Again, the results were overwhelming; 65 percent said quality of life would be worse versus only 7 percent who said it would be better. And the fact that today’s massive wave of immigration is undoing the population choices of the American people is not an accident—it’s the whole point of mass immigration for many of its boosters. Ben Wattenberg, for instance, writes that “without a prospering and demo-graphically growing example of liberty—America—it would be harder to pursue the continuing growth of liberty [emphasis added].”22 In other words, if the American people prove themselves unworthy of what Wattenberg calls “the American mission to promote the global growth of individual and economic liberty within a democratic context” by not voluntarily increasing their numbers enough, then foreigners have to be imported to do the job for them. The constant talk of using immigration to address supposed “labor shortages” is also part of this social-engineering approach. A previous chapter has addressed the incompatibility of mass immigration with the goals of a modern economy; what’s important for our purposes here is that the calls by business lobbyists to address perceived labor shortages by increasing immigration (rather than allowing the domestic labor market to work) are simply another way of saying that business is dissatisfied with the performance of the American people, and wants their inadequate breeding efforts to be supplemented by imports from abroad. This is second-guessing the American people, who have decided, through what one might call the reproductive free market, to have a stable population. Of course, few people consider national population growth when deciding whether and how many children to have, but that misses the point about how markets work. The price of a loaf of bread, for instance, isn’t determined by one decision, as the advocates of central planning used to imagine; rather, the price of the bread is determined by the interaction of millions of individual decisions— many not directly related to the bread at all—by farmers, bakeries, trucking companies, grocery stores, consumers, and others, all making separate decisions based on their own situations. The price of bread that eventually arises from this accumulation of actions is neither right nor wrong, but it is the expression of the community—the “revealed preference,” as economists say—at that particular time under those particular conditions. Likewise with the reproductive free market. There is no birthrate that is objectively right or wrong, but the American people have opted, through millions of individual decisions, for a birthrate that would result in slower population growth and eventual stabilization. Who are politicians to second-guess this clear and consistent decision of the American people, a decision made even clearer by survey research showing that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the policies designed to overturn their demographic decisions? One might object that in a democracy, the people’s representatives are elected, so voters get the policies they deserve. But, as a Mexican scholar has written of the United States, “There are a handful of topics where the elites do not act in the interests of Those they govern. Of these, the most notorious is the contentious issue of immigration.”23 As quantified in the study of elite versus public opinion that was discussed in the chapter on assimilation, immigration is the policy area where the views of the governed and their government are farthest apart.24 And as the fight over the Senate’s 2007 amnesty bill showed, only an extraordinary—indeed, unprecedented—public uprising is able to derail the push for increased immigration by a united elite, including Big Business, Big Labor, Big Media, Big Religion, Big Academia, Big Philanthropy, and Big Government. In a constitutional sense, it is surely true that immigration laws are legitimate, because Congress and the president are duly elected by the voters. But the question here is a political one—whether America’s governing elites are acting in the interests of the people. It’s especially relevant to the question of social engineering that no politician could get away with justifying continued high immigration by clearly stating its undisputed effects on the nation’s population: “I’m voting to send another 100 million people to live in your communities,” or “America’s cities are insufficiently congested,” or “My constituents are making the wrong decisions about childbearing, and those mistakes must be corrected through continued mass immigration.”

Krikorian, Mark (2008-07-03). The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal (pp. 196-199). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

The image featured at the top of this post is from Detroit, Michigan in the mid-20th century, when denizens protested African-Americans settling in their community. The original photo can be found at the Library of Congress.

"The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP" — Bryan Caplan