This article offers a critical discussion of “institutional conservatism” in political philosophy on migration. These are normative theories of exclusion grounded in minimal descriptive accounts of the state. It argues that this methodological strategy, which has been deployed most prominently by Michael Blake and Sarah Song, demands serious attention because it enables the avoidance of a problem of applicability that is pervasive across different theories of the right to exclude. The article then shows that, despite its initial appeal, institutionally conservative theories face a different problem. Their state-based methodology renders them structurally incapable of generating a convincing account of the legitimacy of border control, as distinct from an account of justice in immigration policy. Building on this argument, the article provides further support for the claim that the ethics of migration should turn towards an analysis of the state system.
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