Unbundling Citizenship

Those who oppose more open immigration generally have three arguments, to which I have varying levels of sympathy:

  • It's illegal!  Illegal immigration violates the rule of law.  I have always thought this argument weak and circular.  If the only problem is that immigrants are violating the law, then the law can be changed and its now all legal.  Since this is not the proposed solution, presumably there are other factors that make more open immigration bad beyond just the fact of its illegality.  I am positive I could come up with hundreds of bad laws that if I asked a conservative, "should I aggressively enforce this bad law or should I change it," the answer would be the latter.
  • We will be corrupting our culture.  I am never fully sure what these arguments mean, and they always seem to carry a touch of racism, even if that is not what is intended.  So I will rewrite this complaint in a way I find more compelling:  "We are worried that in the name of liberty and freedom, we will admit immigrants who, because of their background and culture, will vote against liberty and freedom when they join our democracy."  I am somewhat sympathetic to this fear, though I think the horse may already be out of the barn on this one.  Our current US citizens already seem quite able to vote for restrictions on liberties without any outside help.  If I were really worried about this, I might wall off Canada before Mexico.
  • Open Immigration or Welfare State:  Pick One.  I find this the most compelling argument for immigration restrictions.  Historically, immigration has been about taking a risk to make a better life.  I have been reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie, which describes the real risks his family took, and knew they were taking, in coming to America.  But in America today, we aren't comfortable letting people bear the full risk of their failure.  We insist that the government step in with our tax money and provide people a soft landing for their bad decisions (see:  Mortgage bailout) and even provide them with a minimum income that in many cases dwarfs what they were making in their home country. 

My problem with conservatives is that they are too fast to yell "game over" after making these arguments, particularly the third.  There are some very real reasons why conservatives, in particular, should not so easily give up on finding a way to allow more free immigration.  Consider these questions:

  • Should the US government have the right and the power to dictate who I can and cannot hire to work for me in my business?
  • Should the US government have the right and the power to dictate who can and cannot take up residence on my property (say as tenants)?

My guess is that many conservatives would answer both these questions in the negative, but in reality this is what citizenship has become:  A government license to work and live in the boundaries of this nation.

I can't accept that.  As I wrote here:

The individual rights we hold dear are our rights as human beings, NOT
as citizens.  They flow from our very existence, not from our
government. As human beings, we have the right to assemble with
whomever we want and to speak our minds.  We have the right to live
free of force or physical coercion from other men.  We have the right
to make mutually beneficial arrangements with other men, arrangements
that might involve exchanging goods, purchasing shelter, or paying
another man an agreed upon rate for his work.  We have these rights and
more in nature, and have therefore chosen to form governments not to be
the source of these rights (for they already existed in advance of
governments) but to provide protection of these rights against other
men who might try to violate these rights through force or fraud....

These rights of speech and assembly and commerce and property
shouldn't, therefore, be contingent on "citizenship".  I should be
able, equally, to contract for service from David in New Jersey or Lars
in Sweden.  David or Lars, who are equally human beings,  have the
equal right to buy my property, if we can agree to terms.  If he wants
to get away from cold winters in Sweden, Lars can contract with a
private airline to fly here, contract with another person to rent an
apartment or buy housing, contract with a third person to provide his
services in exchange for wages.  But Lars can't do all these things
today, and is excluded from these transactions just because he was born
over some geographic line?  To say that Lars or any other "foreign"
resident has less of a right to engage in these decisions, behaviors,
and transactions than a person born in the US is to imply that the US
government is somehow the source of the right to pursue these
activities, WHICH IT IS NOT...

I can accept that there can be some
minimum residence requirements to vote in elections and perform certain
government duties, but again these are functions associated with this
artificial construct called "government".  There should not be, nor is
there any particular philosophical basis for, limiting the rights of
association, speech, or commerce based on residency or citizenship,
since these rights pre-date the government and the formation of borders.

I have advocated for years that the concept of citizenship needs to be unbundled (and here, on the Roman term Latin Rights).   Kerry Howley makes a similar argument today:

Citizenships are club memberships you happen to be born with. Some
clubs, like the Norway club, have truly awesome benefits. Others, like
the Malawi club, offer next to none. Membership in each club is kept
limited by club members, who understandably worry about the drain on
resources that new members might represent. Wishing the U.S. would
extend more memberships in 2008 isn't going to get you very far.   

for whatever reason, most of us are in a place where we think labor
market access and citizenships ought to be bundled. A Malawian can't
come work here, we think, without the promise of a club membership,
which is nearly impossible to get. This is an incredibly damaging
assumption for two reasons: (1) memberships are essentially fixed in
wealthy democratic societies (2) uneven labor market access is a major
cause of global inequality. Decoupling the two leads to massive gains,
as we see in Singapore, without the need to up memberships.   

another way to think about it: Clubs have positive duties toward their
members, including those of the welfare state. But the negative duty
not to harm outsiders exists prior to clubs, and denying people the
ability to cooperate with one another violates their rights in a very
basic way. Our current policy is one of coercively preventing
cooperation. In saying "we can't let people into this country unless we
confer upon them all the rights and duties of citizenship," you are
saying that we need to violate their right to move freely and cooperate
unless we can give them welfare benefits. But that's backwards.


  1. Anon:

    I guess you know...it is already unbundled. The status required to live and work in the US is called residency, not citizenship. Most of the rhetoric on the subject does not make this distinction, and it is frustrating.

  2. Sameer Parekh:

    Warren-- I agree that all humans have rights. However, it is the government's responsibility to protect the rights only of citizens. If you don't buy into the system and become a citizen, then you should not expect the system to do anything for you and protect your rights. In fact in the interest of protecting the rights of citizens, it may well be appropriate to actually violate (not just fail to protect) the rights of non-citizens.

    To the quoted point: "In saying “we can’t let people into this country unless we confer upon them all the rights and duties of citizenship,”"

    I don't know anyone making that argument. I don't see -anyone- saying we need to eliminate all tourist, student, and worker visas, and only allow into the country people who become a citizen.

  3. Craig:

    In a similar vein to what Sameer said, just because we have natural human rights doesn't mean we should extend our Constitution to foreign terrorists. Likewise, I'd say the same thing about citizenship.

    Related to your point #2, which I would rename "failure to assimilate," bringing in too many immigrants makes it less likely they will want to adopt our culture. See the southwest US, as well as Muslims in Europe.

  4. Mark:

    "I guess you know...it is already unbundled"

    And it is even unbundled beyond that.

    There is a "class" above "citizenship" that extends even more rights, especially political rights.

    For example, certain groups of citizens cannot vote, buy alchohol, or undertake several other activities.

    Because we have these distinctions we should be able to work out the immigration problems.

  5. Rob (another Rob):

    Allow me to throw a "radical" idea into the pot.

    No automatic citizenship for anybody.

    Everybody has to pass the same exam and process for citizenship.

    I am ashamed at my lack of knowledge of US History and Civics (and I earned a degree 15 years back).

    I think everyone should demonstrate basic knowledge of how government works and take the oath of citizenship.

    I think many take their citizenship rather lightly and have no commitment to the country from which they demand commitment (remember JFK's famous line? How many do it?).

    Okay there's some raw meat, have at it.

  6. Ed:

    The issue is not immigration. The issue is uncontrolled immigration.

    Immigration is part of the "secret sauce" that has helped make America great in business and technology. As societies grow and become more wealthy, birth rates drop and innovation plateaus. Historically immigrants have been a solution to that.

    However immigration could to rise to a point at which it dilutes the society to where the societial norms excessively change in such a short period of time that it creates problems. Parts of North Carolina and parts of New Jersey currently demonstrate that problem with a large percentage of the people unable to speak the language and following the mores of the countries from which they came and not those of the US.

    That eventually creates societal pressures on the group called "voters" and the result is predictable. The solution is to guess the level of immigration we can absorb without too much distruption and set the limits accordingly.

    The current problems largely stem from government limits that are too low and which apportion allowed amounts to countries who largely are not the ones from which the pressure to immigrate to the US is felt.

    Each citizen and legal resident is in the system. There are social security numbers, available passports or resident status documents and various other items. Illegal immigrants have none of those (none that are legal). It is desirable that immigrants be "in the system", be legal residents. The problem is what to do with the current level of immigrants and how to better handle immigration pressures in the future. The only viable way to attack the problem is to have the government change to a realistic immigration policy.

    The current system results in a far too high percentage of illegal immigrants working as essentially indentured servants, financially barely able to get through the week. Were they able to vie for all jobs, not just those where they can get away without legal status, that percentage would be far less.

    As for "how can I maintain my business if I have to pay a living wage", those problems address business which either need adjustment to be econonomically viable or for which the owners extract a Scrooge-like profit margin earned on the backs of the workers.

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  8. Bill Nettles:

    I don't have any data to back this up, but I speculate that part of the trouble is with the taxation system.

    1) Do employers try to avoid SS taxes with illegal immigrants (II's)?
    2) Do II's avoid paying income taxes as well as SS taxes?
    3) Do II's avoid property taxes by overcrowding apartments while overcrowding local school systems that depend on property taxes?

    I realize that these items are not exclusive to II's, but I can imagine that the incidence rate is overwhelmingly due to II's in the past decade.

    Language assimilation is another problem. If I went to live in Russia, I would enjoy having people around me who spoke English, but I wouldn't expect them to provide it. The nice thing about English, just about anywhere except France, is that everybody wants to learn it, so they can come to USA and function!

  9. Rick Caird:

    This is an interesting discussion. But, there are areas in which Warren's logic is incomplete. For example, he asks: "Should the US government have the right and the power to dictate who can and cannot take up residence on my property (say as tenants)?". My answer would be "yes" if you also want the government to evict those residing on your property whom you do not want residing there. Or, would Warren prefer that each be responsible for his own evictions without recourse to government? In that case, the proverbial little old lady would be responsible for evicting the hulking tenant who is not paying rent. I wonder how that would work out.

    There are also problems with Warren's club analogy. When I have a club, do I or do I not have the ability to set membership requirements? Intuitively, I would not expect a club organized around, say Catholicism, to be required to admit atheists to the club. They may want to do that, but they don't have a duty to do that.

    Warren also claims: "Our current policy is one of coercively preventing cooperation.". But, that is not true. Warren is free to go somewhere else and cooperate to his heart's content. But, you simply cannot argue you wish the benefits of the club, but only some of the requirements.

    Fun stuff.


  10. Agammamon:

    The benefits of the club are not that I can co-operate with others. I can do that pre-government - being a member of this club actually prevents me from exercising certain basic human rights.

    Being a member of our club does not have to be synonomous with living here, neither does not being a member require that we vacate a geographical boundary.

    As far as problems from social norms changing quickly and that causing problems, well norms are changing within the span of a generation even without outside influences. In addition we have had many large waves of immigration throughout the existence of this country and while they may have caused short term displacements (like all change whether social or technical) in the long term we've absorbed them. Remember what the established Protestants thought of the Irish Catholic immigrants?

    The whole language thing seems overblown to me. I've lived in the southwest for a large part of my life and I can go through every bit of business I need or want without needing a word of Spanish (though the guys in the drive-through seem the hearge "large coke" as "diet coke") - because even if 1st generation immigrants have difficulty learning English, their children pick it up as a matter of course.

    To level the charge of failure to assimulate against immigrants to the US is just bizarre. Isn't one of the purposes we established this nation for *freedom*? People came here to live as they chose and if *new* immigrants want to do the same why is that now different from before? really the only problem with this is that our government will not allow you to truly associate freely - you can't choose not to do business with someone just because you don't like them.

    A lot of our problems (well outside of the xenophobia) could be greatly reduced if we just opened up the residency quotas. Honest people are willing to spend an inordinae amount of time standing in lines and filling out forms and answering really personal questions to gain that legitimacy. Then we wouldn't have to sort out the people that are really dangerous to us - the serious criminals, terrorists, undercover reconquistas - from those who mearly want to make a good living.

  11. Craig:

    You started out so sensibly by agreeing that our welfare state is a convincing reason for controlling immigration, then you just drop it and go off on a rant. Even we conservatives might look more favorably on unlimited immigration if the newly-arrived weren't welcomed into our midst with a cafeteria of citizen-provided welfare programs.

    Maybe that's the angle you libertarians should be looking at instead of trying to claim that immigration cannot be illegal.

  12. Highway:

    Craig, unfortunately that is a bit of a dead end. It's the very rare non-libertarian that would agree to getting rid of the welfare state in any significant manner. There are just too many giveaways to all parties, progressive and conservative, that they are willing to get rid of them.

  13. Jon Nichols:

    I am on the other side of the immigration problem. Not the low-skilled side, but the high-tech, highly educated part. On that side, none of the arguments make nearly as much sense. Virtually all speak English well, they rarely take government benefits, they pay tons of taxes from the moment they enter the country. They build businesses that hire Americans. Their beliefs tend to match quite nicely with the US constitution. Yet there are still strict limits on the numbers of people that can come here.

    I understand limiting immigration to some standard. But then define the standard! If English skills are important, make English a requirement for immigration. Require immigrants to attend 'constitutional training'. Whatever... just tell me what I need to do to become a permanent resident. I promise I'll do it. And I suspect lots of people, including many Mexicans, will do the same.

  14. will:

    Man has been successful by working together, the outgrowth of this has been the development of government to establish the rules of co-operation (commerce), enforcement of the rules and the caretaker of shared resources. It sounds good to say that the individual should be able to hire anyone for their business, but that business does not operate in a vacuum, its success is dependent upon the government fulfilling its role.

    The business needs to buy goods and services and then sell its products. Often these goods and services are transported from or depend upon things transported from other places, the US Navy insures that the sea lanes are open, the Coast Guard provides search and rescue for the ships, the DOT builds an Interstate highway system (shared resources) to transport the goods, the federal, state and local police provides the protection of the goods( by catching and punishing the people who steals, not by being guards). Among other things the government also insures that a gallon is really a gallon and that each business is following the established rules. Now, we have way to many rules and should scale back but not to nothing.

    Thus is it simplistic to say that the Feds should have no say in who you hire, the current system depends upon the Feds to work. They establish the rules of who has the right to work, and as other has pointed out, it is not just citizens that can work in the country. Now I believe that the rules can be improved but I not ready to throw away all the rules, remove the border guards and say come on in no question asked.

    That worked earlier in our history to open our borders when we were a developing nation and needed more people but things has changed.