The Conservative Case for Immigration Reform

The right tends to embrace arguments for more competition and less government. Why can't Republicans apply those lessons to immigration?
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The election loss is leading many Republicans to rethink and evolve their positions on immigration. Rather than simply adjusting their platforms for political expediency, Republicans should use this as an opportunity to take a deeper look at how their thinking and rhetoric on immigration fits within conservative principles and the broader conservative worldview.

A closer look will reveal that the current immigration pessimism that dominates on the right is deeply unconservative, and should be replaced by immigration optimism.

Conservativism isn't a tightly defined ideology, and one cannot appeal to the Ten Commandments for the authoritative rules. However, among the varieties of conservativism, there are a few widely shared beliefs that approach the status of core principles.

One important such belief is that conservatives are generally optimistic about the benefits of competition. Take, for example, an issue like the effects of a new Walmart opening. Liberals will tend to emphasize the static costs and those who bear them, like the incumbent Mom & Pop grocery stores put out of business, and their employees. In contrast, conservatives are more likely to emphasize the benefits of competition, like creative destruction and a dynamic and growing economy.

Importantly, it is not solely empirical evidence on the effects of Walmart that informs conservatives here, but a general optimism about the benefits of competition. This optimism flows from a belief that while competition leads to jobs and businesses being destroyed, markets will reallocate the workers and capital, and in the long-run we will all be richer for embracing a dynamic and competitive economy.

However, too many Republicans abandon this optimism about the benefits of competition when it comes to immigration. Suddenly, economic pessimism replaces economic optimism. They focus on those who compete directly with immigrants and as a result lose their jobs and have lower wages. The most important issues quickly become concerns about how the economy will adjust to congestion, overcrowding, and pollution.

Lost in such pessimism is the usual conservative optimism about the benefits of when the government gets out of the way and lets people work and trade together in free markets. Gone is the optimism about how competition helps create a dynamic and growing economy, benefits consumers, and makes all of us, even the employees of Mom & Pop groceries, better off in the long-run. Many Republicans forget that trade and free markets are not a zero sum game; that immigrants pay taxes, buy goods, innovate, start companies, and grow the size of our economic pie. There's empirical evidence backing all this up, but Republicans are often drawn to the most pessimistic studies and interpret all of the evidence in light of strong prior beliefs about a zero sum economy where competition is a bad thing.

On top of their unconservative pessimistic assessment of the effects of immigration, Republicans also toss aside the conservative principle of limited government when it comes to what to do about these effects. Normally, conservatives realize it is difficult to claim the mantle of limited government while simultaneously supporting the government goal of restricting competition. You can see this principle reflected clearly inconservatives' support for free trade, opposition to public sector monopolies, and suspicion of regulations. But such principles are quickly abandoned when it comes to immigration. Take for example the recent Senate testimony of Jan Ting, a fellow at the Center for Immigration, who worried that amnesty for illegal immigrants "would make these immigrant workers better able to compete with American workers for jobs, including at least 12 million American workers still trying to find work". Why should Mom & Pop grocery stores, public sector workers, and manufacturers losing market share to China not be shielded from competition, but those competing with immigrants should? It is unconservative and inconsistent for Republicans to embrace this competition stifling goal for the government.

All of this doesn't mean Republicans must embrace open borders, full amnesty, or abandon all concerns about the effects of immigration. One can be optimistic about the effects of immigrants on the economy, recognize that stifling competition isn't a role for the government, but still be concerned about immigration. For example, one might be worried about the fiscal impact of welfare spending on immigrants.

But whatever concerns Republicans do raise about immigration should be consistent with their wider beliefs about our economy and government. Again, this doesn't mean embracing any particular policy. But it does mean being optimistic about competition and not asking the government to engage in protectionism.

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Presented by

Adam Ozimek and Sean Rust

Adam Ozimek writes regularly at Modeled Behavior and is a senior research associate at Econsult Solutions, an economics consulting company. Sean Rust is a law and public-policy scholar at Temple University's Beasley School of Law.

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