The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Hereditary Aristocracy of Citizenship

We pride ourselves on having abolished the hereditary privileges once associated with aristocracy. But our citizenship system replicates many of the same evils.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

A US passport. The privileges associated with it are available only to citizens, and citizen status is largely hereditary.

Citizens of modern Western nations like to think that we have abolished the hereditary privileges once associated with aristocracy. No longer does a person born a noble enjoy a vast array of rights denied to commoners. Nor do we any longer have a class of serfs tied to the land, condemned to poverty and oppression for life. But, as conservative columnist Rachel Lu points out in an insightful recent article, we have a system of hereditary privilege that in many ways is just as pernicious as the aristocracy of old. We call it citizenship:

We like to think we've transcended this kind [of] elitism. Here in America, we prioritize content of character, not circumstances of birth. In this country, your fortunes depend on what you can do, not on some inherited pedigree.

That, at any rate, is our national myth. Unfortunately, it's not really true, in this nation or any other. Democratic ideals may have swept the globe so totally that even totalitarians now pay lip-service to them, yet our world is in some respects more ruthlessly class-divided than ever. I'm not talking here about the 1 percent, or the 9.9 percent, or whatever percentage we see as inheriting systemic advantages from their well-heeled parents. I'm talking about citizenship.

Citizenship represents the most significant class lottery remaining in the modern world. The cover of your passport speaks volumes about your prospects for enjoying peace, prosperity, and happiness over the course of your life. If you are the offspring of Danes, you can likely look forward to eight peaceful and happy decades, with a good education and quality medical care. Were you born in Haiti? In that case, you may get 65 years, but you'll probably spend them coping with grinding poverty (at about 1/30th the income of an average American). If you were born in North Korea, accept my compliments for even managing to read these words.

Citizenship, in short, is massively consequential, and there's almost nothing meritorious about it. If you've spent your life as an American citizen, your fortunes have depended to a very great extent on an inherited pedigree. Even if you're brilliant and full of entrepreneurial energy, those qualities probably wouldn't have helped you as a citizen of Burundi or Niger. It's hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when there's virtually nowhere to go.

For most people, citizenship status determines where you are allowed to live and work, which in turn largely determines not only your economic fate, but often whether you will have protection for even very minimal human rights. And citizenship itself is largely determined by birth - much like membership in old-time aristocracies. If you were not born a US citizen or a close relative of one, there is very little chance you will ever be allowed to emigrate here. For most others, the so-called "line" they must join is either nonexistent or likely to be decades or centuries long. The same point applies to your chances of emigrating to just about any other advanced liberal democracy. A few countries have established a "right of return" for members of the majority ethnic group within that nation, such as Germany for ethnic Germans, and Israel for Jews. But this, too, is a kind of hereditary privilege, albeit based on race or ethnicity rather than family.

Like traditional aristocracy, the new aristocracy of citizenship is not a totally hermetically sealed class. Just as a commoner could sometimes join the nobility by marrying an aristocrat, so a foreigner can become eligible for American citizenshp by marrying a current citizen. And just as kings and emperors would sometimes elevate to the nobility those commoners they considered especially deserving (or especially useful), so modern governments sometimes grant residency rights (and the opportunity for eventual citizenship) to particular classes of migrants without family connections to current citizens, such as workers in certain professions. These exceptions to the rule of hereditary privilege are important. But they are still exceptions to a general rule that keeps the vast majority "in their place."

One notable difference between the new and old aristocracy, is that entry into the former is often open to certain types of refugees - usually those fleeing oppression targeting them on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or political views. I myself am a lucky beneficiary of this system. But these categories still exclude the vast majority of people suffering from oppression and poverty, including all those who are "merely" victims of generalized oppression by authoritarian governments, rather than specific targeting based on prohibited characteristics. And even the exceptions for the "right" type of refugee, have cruel and ridiculous exceptions of their own, such as the one that bars people enslaved by terrorists on the theory that their forced labor qualifies as providing "material support" for a terrorist organization.

Both old-style aristocracy and the modern aristocracy of citizenship forced many people into poverty and oppression based largely on circumstances of birth. And, in their heyday, both systems commanded widespread support because they were seen as just a "natural" part of life that most people took for granted. But, in reality, both types of hereditary privilege were not naturally occurring facts of the world, but rather were (and are) enforced by large-scale government coercion. In the case of the system currently enforced by the US and other Western nations, that coercion includes such tactics as confining refugees in cruel detention camps, deporting people to places where they are likely to be abused or killed, and forcibly separating children from their parents.

Today, we are repulsed by our ancestors who thought that it was perfectly normal - and unavoidable - that lords enjoyed an array of privileges denied to commoners and serfs. But few question our own hereditary privileges. For most of us, our doubts are limited to qualms about the more extreme tactics that keep those privileges in place, as in the case of the current controversy over family separation at the border.

It took centuries to (largely) eliminate traditional hereditary aristrocracy. It is unlikely that we can quickly do away with its modern successor. But there is much we can do to reduce the harm it causes. Broadly speaking, that can be accomplished either by broadening access to citizenship, or by reducing the extent of the privileges associated with citizen status. If citizenship no longer determined where you are allowed to live and work, to the extent it does today, its hereditary nature would be far less oppressive. Such a step would actually bring us closer to the system that prevailed in the US for the first century of our history (until the racially motivated Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), and for most non-Asian immigrants until the 1920s. Alternatively, we can make citizenship easier to obtain for people who don't have family or ethnic connections to current citizens of advanced Western nations. The best path forward might potentially be some combination of both approaches.

Obviously, there are a variety of practical objections to these sorts of reforms. I cannot begin to address them all in this post, though I have considered many of the major ones elsewhere (e.g. here and here); see also this excellent analysis by economist Bryan Caplan. It is worth remembering that defenders of traditional hereditary aristocracy also argued that the sky would fall if there was no longer a privileged aristocratic class at the top of society, one capable of maintaining order, perpetuating civilization, and keeping the rabble in their place.

At the very least, we should recognize that our modern-day aristocracy of citizenship has much in common with traditional hereditary aristocracy, and often perpetrates comparably grave injustice. That recognition might stimulate greater consideration of ways to alleviate these wrongs, while mitigating potential negative side effects of doing so. Most members of the modern aristocratic class might actually benefit from a reduction of their privileges, by tapping into some of the immense new wealth likely to be created through freer migration.

The struggle against the injustice of our modern version of aristrocratic privilege is likely to be long and difficult. But the first step in the right direction is recognizing that a serious problem exists.