Conservative and small-government case for open borders

There is already a strong moral and practical case for open borders. Building on these, it is possible to build a case for open borders from a “conservative/small-government” perspective.

The term “conservative” as used here is not a stand-in for the libertarian case, which is separate and strong. Rather, “conservative” here is used to refer to Burkean conservatism, which combines features such as: dislike of concentrations of power, skepticism of radical change, general preference for market mechanisms as opposed to government bureaucracies, and caution in tampering with time-tested traditions.

On the one hand, there is a strong conservative case against open borders: concern about the radical change that such a policy might bring about, in line with the precautionary principle. However, there are also important conservative arguments for open borders:

  • Skepticism about the crude mechanisms used by governments to restrict immigration and select immigrants should concern conservatives. These mechanisms include hard quotas (rather than more market-based approaches such as immigration tariffs) and bureaucratic decision-making (rather than a more decentralized process where it is easier for individual citizens to sponsor or invite foreigners).
  • Conservatives are rightly concerned about the undermining of the rule of law (see legal versus illegal) as well as the corruption of law enforcement officers engendered by an immigration policy that is far removed from the market equilibrium. Skepticism about government overreach should lead them to seek to reduce the scope for corruption rather than seek harsher enforcement of bad policies.
  • In the US context, there are US-specific pro-immigration arguments that draw on the tradition, founding virtues, and track record of immigration into the United States.

All that said, conservative principles overall suggest that a more cautious and gradual approach to opening the border may be advisable (see moderate versus radical open borders).

Some related writings:

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