Saturday, May 26, 2007

Allocating Citizenship

Global justice concerns may be raised about not only material resource allocations, but also "social resources" such as citizenship, which arise from networks of permission and restraint. Note that whether someone is accepted as a member of a functioning society -- permitted to work and live within the nation's borders, bound and protected by its institutions -- makes an extraordinary difference to their life chances. Yet, Will Wilkinson writes:
Strangely, there appears to be next to nothing in the mainstream political philosophy literature (though maybe I’m missing something), that drives home the arbitrary distribution of citizenship. It’s funny, because citizenship, unlike wealth, can be created out of thin air, and is distributed according to a few largely arbitrary principles.

Further, in starkly physical terms, it's not as though citizenship is some positive entity that we're simply omitting to provide. A non-citizen is not lacking in any intrinsic capacity. What citizenship provides is permission -- it simply serves to remove the obstructions we would otherwise place in their way. In other words, social resources are liberties, and arguably should be considered the natural 'default' or baseline position. Citizenship isn't something we grant; it's something we cease to deny.

So: is the current global allocation of social resources just? Or should, for example, functioning societies deny citizenship to fewer people?

[Cross-posted to the International Network for Ethical Issues in Resource Allocation blog.]

P.S. Note that money, likewise, is arguably more a social than material resource, in the above sense.


  1. Not sure that citizenship comes so cheap... in most developed countries, being a citizen entitles you to a certain amount of access to material resources (education, health care, etc.) The potential drain on these resources is, I think, one of the best arguments for caution in making it easier to get citizenship in such a country, even if the matter is quite arbitrary and not the way things would work in an ideal world.

  2. Maybe he should try reading some of the far left.

    After all there are a lot of people who support the "no state" solution.
    that would be the only fair way to allocate at birth if that sort of fairness is indeed our aim.


  3. I think that citizenship, even in the sense you describe it, is something given, something that we cease to deny, and something that is denied. Unfortunately citizenship is something that makes us special at the particular state or country that we are citizens of. I am the child of a Guatemalan family which was granted citizenship by Regan’s amnesty. Some of the people I grew up with, Kids my own age who came to the us as 3 month old babies are still considered illegal immigrants and are denied things that we as citizens or legal residents take for granted. One of them had to jump through hoops just to be accepted into a university. Citizenship is a very important thing that most citizens just take for granted. If you aren’t a citizen, no matter what your age, no matter how long you’ve been in the U.S. or whatever country you are in as a non-citizen, not having a citizenship is not just not having permission, but not having access to some of the most important and fundamental things in life (i.e.: education, peace of mind, safety and security, and so on).

  4. I agree that citizenship is largely the cessation of the application of a system of coercion -- without the enforcement of non-citizenship, citizenship would not exist in the way it presently does. Although Jose Leiva is correct that citizenship is an enabling condition for quite a few goods (health care, etc.), the current quality & quantity of goods that citizenship enables (in Western countries) would be unavailable if it were extended to a much larger group of people. Note that this is not a necessary consequence, but rather a practical result of the fact that Western nations have more "built in" to citizenship (and because of their wealth, they have more available to "build in" to it); a country that had no infrastructure, economy, etc. (read: a country where relatively no one wanted to live or visit) would not have any problems in extending citizenship to anyone who crossed its borders. Where there is nothing to exclude others from, there is no value in exclusion.

    Moreover, it is important to recognize that the enforcement of non-citizenship coerces not only the non-citizen, but also the citizen who wants to trade with or engage in any political/social relationship that requires citizenship with the non-citizen. That is, non-citizenship is coercive for citizens too.

    In most Western countries, one component "built into" citizenship is the requirement that one must be paid a minimum wage (or, the enforced inability of one to sell one's labor at the price of one's choice, if that choice is less than the governmentally stipulated minimum). In this case the non-citizen is (supposed to be) prevented from working for a citizen, and a citizen is prevented from hiring a non-citizen. Enforcement of non-citizenship always effects two parties.

    I think one can just as reasonably take the argument intimated by hallq as working in the other direction:
    If universal citizenship and the current standard of living provided by restricted citizenship (in Western countries) are incompatible, then something is wrong the current standard of living (or, not the standard itself, but rather how it is achieved, i.e., through the coercive enforcement of non-citizenship).

    One could also explore the arbitrary nature of citizenship (it is enforced along geo-political boundaries). Is one's birth location meaningfully different from one's skin color, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, etc.? If we think it is wrong to politically discriminate on the basis of the latter, why not the former? It may be just an empirical fact that all humans have to live in certain spatial relationships set by geography, but we also must all live with various skin colors, genders, etc. -- one must pick out something about geo-political location that legitimates the special political status of one and not the other, if citizenship is to make "sense" (where "sense" entails something different from "this coercive structure existed when we got here, and it would be very difficult to change it now").

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  6. I should add, nothing I've said above is an argument for an open-borders situation. I've really only raised questions, but answers to these seem essential for any argument that aims to establish the legitimacy of a coercive citizenship (non-citizenship) system. (My focus on 'coercion' should reveal my pre-theoretic suspicions and prejudices.)

    I think many debates on the issue of citizenship have got the logical order of issues in reverse: one must first establish (or at least verify, according to some pre-established or -accepted criteria) the role of citizenship per se, before one can assess its proper scope. We should try to build 'citizenship' up out of more primitive ideas (or perhaps argue why 'citizenship' is a primitive, but this doesn't seem right), rather than attempt to move down from the present situation to a more relaxed- or open-borders situation.

  7. "Not sure that citizenship comes so cheap..."

    this is true, but it could be considered as an argument against providing these things to citizens in the first place.

  8. It may well be one of those situations where you can say "no one has the right to do this but if we didnt it would be a disaster".


  9. What citizenship provides is permission -- it simply serves to remove the obstructions we would otherwise place in their way. In other words, social resources are liberties, and arguably should be considered the natural 'default' or baseline position. Citizenship isn't something we grant; it's something we cease to deny.

    As a U.S. citizen I am not merely permitted to access certain resources, I am held to certain legal responsibilities. For instance, as a U.S. citizen I am required to pay taxes on my income, no matter where in the world I earn it, and no matter what the tax laws of the place where I earn it may be. (This contrasts with, say, Canada, which has taxes only residents.) The details of this are complicated by levels and levels of tax treaties, but the fact of the matter is, that by being a U.S. citizen I am technically committed to obeying any laws the U.S. may constitutionally make with regard to my status as a U.S. citizen, regardless of where I live or work.

    Thus, unless you are willing to hold that the United States could legitimately begin taxing you simply by deciding, arbitrarily, that all New Zealanders should be counted as U.S. citizens, I don't see how the above statement can be made to work. Citizenship is not merely a permission; it is a legal status, governed by law, carrying with it legal responsibilities and demands. Citizenship can come with taxation requirements, military service requirements, jurisdictional privileges of governments (i.e., if you are a citizen of A and get in trouble with the law, B can't give you diplomatic protection even if you are a citizen of B), etc.

  10. A crude but simpler way to make the same point as my previous comment: non-citizenship can also be seen as a permission, protection, and liberty (largely by putting you outside a government's jurisdiction). Someone who is not a citizen has a certain measure of freedom from laws imposed on citizens. So why is it that citizenship freedoms are the default, and not non-citizenship freedoms?

  11. "unless you are willing to hold that the United States could legitimately begin taxing you..."

    No, right, I was only talking about the benefits of citizenship as consisting in permission rather than donation. Any imposed burdens are another matter entirely.

    "why is it that citizenship freedoms are the default, and not non-citizenship freedoms?"

    Are they really mutually exclusive? I think I'd want to hold all freedoms as 'defaults', such that insofar as a feature of either option restricts human opportunities, it stands in need of justification. (I'm not an anarchist, so I think such justifications can often be found.)

    Though if we put aside the broader questions, and just take our present "partly coercive citizenship vs. partly coercive non-citizenship" options as given, then I guess the freedom-loving thing to do is to let each person choose which of the two bundles they'd prefer!

  12. I'm inclined to think that at least some of the freedoms associated with both citizenship and noncitizenship are derived from the fact that they are citizenship and noncitizenship are themselves exclusive -- that is, they are contrastive freedoms. The fact that I, if I get in trouble with the law in some other country might only get deported is a freedom in contrast with what would happen with a citizen, which might involve jail time. Nobody thinks that deportation as such is a protection or freedom; rather, the protection is being shielded from some consequences of citizenship by only falling within a government's jurisdiction in a limited way. But I'm not sure how many of the protections and liberties on both sides are contrastive in this way, and I'm not sure this sort of contrastive feature really entails that the freedoms themselves are mutually exclusive (for instance, one could imagine being treated as a citizen for some purposes and as a non-citizen for others).

  13. the current quality & quantity of goods that citizenship enables (in Western countries) would be unavailable if it were extended to a much larger group of people

    I wonder if this claim is valid? US health care is screwed up for all residents, legal and illegal; even those who pay more at more exclusive hospitals, a recent NYTimes report ("In Health Care, Cost Isn't Proof of High Quality") says, aren't assured to get better health care--suggesting that privatization of health care, not socialization, is to blame (of course, that's highly debatable too). The flip side of this report is that cheaper hospitals that serve more patients can deliver quality results.

    To answer one of the original questions of this post, I believe citizenship is not a strongly defined status for a few reasons: (1) the political philosophy of Rousseau, for instance, sort of assumes that a human being in contact with other humans is a de facto member of society, and (2) the de jure membership of a human being in society necessarily follows upon the establishment of a state; (3) the US has a whole legal and philosophical mess over the issue of citizenship because of its history and repeated justifications of slavery. And don't forget what the US did to Native Americans, too.
    Now, (3) is a highly political claim and even if I insist that it's true many will dispute me; (2) doesn't say what happens after a state has been established; and (1) needs to be cross-checked, as I haven't looked back at Rousseau in some time. But if my memory serves me well, then a corollary to (1) might be that it is a moral need to recognize the emplacement of others in your society. Ignoring "aliens", kicking them out, or imprisoning them besides being a stupid, tedious, and possibly violent "solution" is starkly immoral.

  14. There IS something in mainstream political philosophy that "drives home the arbitrary distribution of citizenship"--and it happens to be nearly 300 years old. We didn't do our homework...check out this passage from Locke's 2nd Treatise on Government, ch VIII, sec 117:
    "Tis plain then, by the Practice of Governments themselves, as well as by the Law of right Reason, that a Child is born a Subject of no Country or Government. He is under his Father's Tuition and Authority, till he come to Age of Discretion; and then he is a Free-man, at liberty what Government he will put himself under; what Body Politick he will unite himself to."

    This all of course serves to illustrate Locke's belief in the consent of the governed, and the difference in the argument found in Locke to the discussion of "allocation of citizenship" today demonstrates how much power governments have assumed over the people, without the proviso of Consent that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau thought was so crucial to stable government.

    In American political philosophy, it seems, Consent dropped out after the Civil War of 1860-65 when the Body Politick was forcibly re-united, and after which citizenship was explicitly defined in the 13th (?) Amendment. Furthermore, when it comes to the discussion of taxes in above comments, Federal Income Tax in the US can be seen as a reversal of a Governed-Government relationship, where, given the power to dole out citizenship 40 years prior (and even earlier, if you include the 3/5ths Compromise), the US Government then had grounds to reverse the demands the people placed on a Government which they chose and turn it into demands placed on a population which the Government authorized.


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