Nativism is an ideological cancer that corrupts the principles conservatives claim to hold dear. In order to defend immigration restrictions, conservatives must embrace arguments that are bitterly antagonistic to their vision of a free and self-responsible society. And when conservatives embrace nativism, they drive away people sympathetic to their independent rhetoric.
First, any broad immigration restrictions will conflict with basic human liberties – the freedom to travel, the freedom to work, and the freedom to choose a place to live will all be infringed. Whatever considerations conservatives use to justify immigration restrictions, they will have to suppose that individual rights are weaker than these considerations. Conservatives may later find themselves incapable of defending supposedly weak rights against restrictions favored by progressives.
This is more than a theoretical problem. The arguments in favor of forced unionization and trade restrictions are almost identical to the “utilitarian” arguments against immigration. In all three cases, arbitrarily restricting the opportunities of some impoverished group – poor immigrants, unemployed workers, poor workers in foreign industries exporting to America – keeps the wages of other American workers higher. These American workers are generally poorer than the consumers who would benefit from freer competition, but they are not as poor as those whose options are limited by regulation. Immigration restrictions create a de facto “American Union”.
Conservatives sometimes try to distinguish these cases by insisting that American liberties are for Americans. Things that can be legitimately done to foreigners cannot be done to Americans. Americans derive certain special rights from their citizenship that foreigners do not. This line of reasoning is antithetical to the traditional natural rights foundation of conservative thought. Consider, for example, the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
The Declaration of Independence explicitly rejects the doctrine of special American rights. It asserts that all people naturally have equal rights. Governments do not create these rights, they merely protect them. Furthermore, immigrants have no voice over the laws that govern their right to immigrate, so these laws are not “just powers”. By espousing “American Rights”, conservatives have rejected the moral theory of the Declaration.
Instead, they implicitly accept some sort of communitarian ethic – in which rights are not natural, but a creation of the community. Communitarian theories, popular among progressives, insist that rights are the product of, not the constraints on, legitimate democracies, because carefully constructed democratic institutions give people the ability to reason together carefully about difficult moral issues. Conservatives should be very careful before they embrace communitarianism, because it ultimately supplants substantive morality with a supposedly moral process. That process may produce immigration restrictions, but it will just as easily produce gun bans, progressive taxes, and the modern welfare state.
Finally, opposition to immigration makes the conservative movement attractive to people who are not conservatives, but merely bigots. The nature of democracy may lead many conservative voters to unconsciously neglect the moral worth of immigrants, but other people are quite conscious of their vicious loathing for strangers. They may hate Hispanics, foreign languages, people of color, or members of other religions, especially Islam. It is politically infeasible for them to persecute these people directly, but they can put their prejudices into policy by supporting conservative immigration restrictions. Creating a space for bigots within conservatism makes conservatism deeply unattractive to freedom-loving people who dislike bigots.
Immigration restrictions are not merely inconsistent with conservative principles. They are an ideological cancer. Political ideologies are not locked in stasis. They shift with the conflicting pull of their competing components. They grow or shrink in a marketplace of ideas. Contradictions cannot continue indefinitely – they will either be expunged or take over completely. Conservatism is no different. Immigration hatred can drive people who love freedom out of the conservative movement, or it can drive the love of freedom out of conservatives. Is this worth it?