Sacred Citizenship: Its Hypocrisy, Its Randomness, Its Price


Dimitry Kochenov provides a general overview of the ethical and moral concerns raised by the critics of the investment migration industry and explains why their arguments do not quite hold up in his opinion.


Many among the privileged minority of citizens of the richest countries in the world present citizenship by investment as sacrilege: citizenship is a moral high ground and should not be an object of mundane transactions. In a world of mass inequality, where citizenship is allocated at random through what Ayelet Shachar branded as ‘birthright lottery’, and where state borders, as Branko Milanovic documented, are the key tools of separating the haves from the have-nots (your Bangladeshi grand-mother will not be joining you in Denmark anytime soon, while the Swedish one is welcome any day), this ‘sacred citizenship’ perspective is not convincing.


The Quality of Nationality Index (QNI, illustrating our intuitions shows that comparing citizenships leads to interesting conclusions: while some citizenships, such as the French or the Maltese, give us rights, others, such as Afghani or Pakistani, are unquestionably a liability: a birth-right lottery lost. These differences, as long as they do not correlate with wealth and talents of concrete individuals, are the key driver behind the investment migration industry, of which the Investment Migration Council is the voice.


The industry’s tremendous growth and success, as analysed by Kristin Surak among others, underline several dark truths about citizenship, which are hidden under the surface of its day-to-day connotations. The hypocrisy and randomness behind the concept of citizenship are lain bare. The uselessness of plenty of the worlds’ citizenships is suddenly in the spotlight, turning any talk of ‘equality’ without looking at what is across the border into a joke, which is however not funny. The malign nature of the political dimension of citizenship arguments to disqualify from the desired statuses those who did not win the birth-right lottery and got allocated a sub-standard status becomes particularly clear. As long as citizenship remains the last feudal vestige in the contemporary world, otherwise based on the ideals of personal deserve and achievement, any argument against investment migration based on the popular ‘normative considerations’ endowing citizenship with the mythical goodness only befogs citizenship’s very nature, aiming, unsuccessfully, to save the concept from itself.


A Lottery World 

There are many stories about how selling things is bad: land is not for sale; love is not for sale; salvation is not for sale. Such proclamations make one wonder whether the purpose of ethical high points is to totally contradict reality. Hypocrisy itself is difficult to sell as an argument: land can be bought, prostitution is often legal, just as marrying above your class and not necessarily for the torments of the heart, and some of the greatest art was sponsored by those who wanted to buy salvation for themselves and hopefully succeeded. To insist that citizenship is not for sale is to ensure the perpetuation of the outright randomness of its conferral as well as hypocritical and self-righteous excuses lurking behind fundamental mechanisms of exclusions marking citizenship’s core. Those boasting Italian great grandparents in Paraguay, members of Polish diasporas in Australia and elsewhere, large benefactors and talented sportsmen – all these people can acquire a better citizenship in this lottery world, however random the rules.


But popular critique usually focuses on those countries that offer citizenship for investment in a perfectly transparent way – see for instance the European Parliament’s 2014 Resolution on Malta, remarkable for the lack of a single argument as to what the Parliament is actually criticising and who suffers as a result. Sanctifying the random allocation of crucially important legal statuses cannot withstand serious scrutiny: unquestionably, this approach is wrong, just as it is wrong to pretend that any other principle than outright randomness is at the core of the assignment of citizenship statuses in today’s world. Once the inevitable randomness of exclusion is admitted, we need to ask what citizenship is actually about.


“Once the inevitable randomness of exclusion is admitted, we need to ask what citizenship is actually about.”


A Question of Discrimination

In the context of citizenship by investment many worry about discrimination at the point of acquisition of citizenship. However, a strict non-discrimination approach would deprive citizenship of its main – and ultimately only key function – i.e. random exclusion of large parts of society from territory, dignity and political life. Crucially, both de facto and de jure aspects of exclusion must be taken into account, a point that is often forgotten.

The fact that many de jure citizens are de facto stateless, in the sense of not receiving protection by their state of origin or enjoying any usable substantive rights of nationality, is of crucial importance. Idealistic images of a citizenship of the past are based on misrepresentation of social facts, perpetuating an often repugnant status quo, where plenty of people, especially women and minorities, are failed by their states day after day.


Thus real citizenship starts with the actual extension of rights and giving the voice to those who are already formally included: women, minorities, the poor and the weak: plentiful problems remain in this regard.


Naturalisation is but a second step which serves three functions: providing citizenship status to long-term resident immigrants, respecting and recognising citizens’ family ties through special naturalisation rules for family members, and reinforcing the society with talent, money, inspiration and diversity – which translates into inviting the rich, the beautiful and the smart (sometimes these three categories overlap of course).


No confusion between different groups of applicants should arise: to ask that all follow the same path is rarely helpful. Arguing for making the rules as strict as possible for all misses the different purposes of conferring nationality in the first place. Be it sports, science, money, or family, it is up to the national democratic process to determine the criteria. Crucially, there is no ethical point to be made in arguing against money when having regular sex with someone already proclaimed a citizen, expensive education, or muscular power can also do the trick. Money is no less random a criterion and this is exactly what citizenship is about. Unlike marriages and running fast, money – especially when it is a lot of money – could actually have a positive impact on the development of the country in question.


Asked to pick between an imported husband or wife of no particular distinction, a speed skater and a billionaire, a proverbial philosopher-king could hardly be accused of forgetting rationality if the third person is picked in the context of citizenship distribution. There is no place for discrimination talk at the point of access to a random status, obviously, while discrimination between citizens should not be tolerated, of course. Real discrimination would be to sell a partial rather than fully fledged citizenship, but the attractiveness of the former would be questionable citizens should not be tolerated, of course. Real discrimination would be to sell a partial rather than fully fledged citizenship, but the attractiveness of the former would be questionable.



The Troubling Truth 

All the citizens are different and closing the doors to investment naturalisations based on forgetting this simple fact is another popular error of the moralists not wishing investment migration well. In the age of post-heroic geopolitics, plenty of people naturalise or cherish the nationality they already have for entirely different reasons.


Indeed, the political aspect, rather than being at the core of citizenship, regrettably becomes the scapegoat for justifying refusals to extend the status to those who already belong to the society.


The idea that only the right people participate in political life is so important that you will be discriminated, threatened with deportation, exploited and humiliated in order to protect the sacred body politic. The troubling truth is that more and more people do not care about politics, as opinion polls amply testify. And those who do, can be politically engaged, despite not having the formal status of membership – as the German citizen Daniel Cohn-Bendit was in Paris in 1968.


To state that a handful of investment citizens are a problem for democracy is as far-reaching as it is absurd, even if all of them world-wide would suddenly mobilize to take a stronger part in governing their countries.


For the reasons above, opposing the sales of citizenship on ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ grounds means but one thing: forgetting what citizenship means and how it is acquired. Such arguments should thus be dismissed outright as both immoral and ahistorical as well as harmful economically. Treating the evil nature of citizenship seriously and the devastating role in countless lives seriously is a must for any scholar and practitioner active in the investment migration field.


Source: IM Yearbook 2018/2019


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