Should Citizenship Be For Sale?

As the Investment Migration Council prepares to gather in Geneva for its annual Forum, it is worth inquiring into the legitimacy of the burgeoning industry of investment migration. Given that the idea relates primarily to some of the world’s wealthiest people, some have been skeptical. But is it wrong to sell citizenship to high bidders? An answer requires an exploration of what citizenship is.

We tend to think of citizenship in either mundane or exalted terms. In everyday parlance, citizenship simply refers to the country whose passport one carries. The more exalted notion goes back to the ancient Greeks, who regarded citizenship as forming the basis of civilized life. Citizens took turns ruling and being ruled.

More recently, citizenship has been understood as a gateway to various kinds of rights—civil rights (equality before the law), political rights (the vote), and social rights (education, social insurance, and social services). The political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously called citizenship “the right to have rights.”

But how does one acquire citizenship? Aristotle noted more than 2000 years ago that there were two principal methods: by descent from citizen parents and by birth on the soil of a given country. But it is important to note that the acquisition of citizenship is generally a mere accident of birth. In that sense, it is out of step with our modern notion that one’s status should be “achieved,” not “ascribed.” Citizenship is thus a deeply illiberal institution; it rewards some and punishes others on the arbitrary basis of where or to whom they were born.

Of course, there is a third route to citizenship: naturalization. Most of the debate about citizenship revolves around this path, because it is the only one that involves choice–on the part of both the individuals and the countries in question.

Countries must first determine who among non-citizens they are prepared to allow in. Most developed countries have shifted from privileging ethnic, racial, or family connections in their immigration policies to schemes that give preference to those with desired skills who can be expected to contribute to the economy. For example, Canada has a “points system” that determines whether a large share of would-be immigrants will be admitted into the country. The United States is an outlier in that it still gives about two-thirds of its immigration visas to family members of people already in the country.

Once the matter of who is allowed in is resolved, there is the question of who is allowed to naturalize and become a citizen. Typically, a minimum period of residency is required. Some countries also require knowledge of a dominant language, of the country’s political system, or of its culture. A country may offer a “fast track” to citizenship for those who perform military service. Finally, some countries offer the opportunity to naturalize to those who agree to invest in the target country. They would normally commit to investing a certain amount of money and/or to creating a certain number of jobs over a specified period of time. This is the so-called “investment migration” on which the meeting in Geneva focuses.

Such a scheme gives those with lots of money an unearned advantage over other would-be immigrants. And immigrants-by-investment may not feel much obligation to the country whose citizenship they buy. But then natives of a country may not do much to fulfill what we may think of as the obligations of citizenship, either.

Native-born citizens may not vote, for example. The United States does not require people to vote, and only 55% of eligible voters cast ballots in the historic 2016 presidential contest. Voting is thus more of a privilege than a duty of citizenship. As a result, some countries (such as Australia) may require citizens to vote on pain of a fine, but not all countries with compulsory voting laws actually enforce those laws.

Then there’s military service. The notion of the “citizen-soldier” has long been seen as close to the heart of what it means to be a citizen. But in the post-World War II period, many of the world’s wealthiest countries have abandoned conscription in favor of professional militaries. The citizen-soldier model has also declined in favor of techniques of warfare involving few warriors—the rise of special operations, the use of remotely-piloted drones, autonomous weapons, and the like.

Finally, citizens must pay taxes. But all workers, insofar as their economic activities are captured by the government, must pay taxes as well. In economic terms, presence on the territory is more significant than citizenship when it comes to tax obligations. In the United States, illegal immigrants pay substantial amounts of taxes every year; they even pay some $15 billion per year into Social Security, despite being ineligible for Social Security themselves. So immigrants often subsidize the native-born citizen population, even if they are in the country illegally.

Against this balance sheet, it’s not easy to see why investment migration should be regarded as a major problem. It has, to be sure, been used in small, poorer countries as a way to boost their economies without truly developing them. And there have been cases of fraud. But there’s plenty of that among native-born populations as well. Immigration and citizenship policies are part and parcel of a country’s broader array of concerns and tools regarding the well-being of its population.

What’s missing is the traditional concern with common citizenship—the institutionalized commitment to promoting a shared community of fate. With military service declining as an avenue for demonstrating such solidarity, it may be time to pay more attention to ideas regarding national service. Those have in the past done much to help sustain a sense of common membership, and they could do more in the future.

Published: 2 June 2019

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