Local Citizenship

In his latest blog over in Openborders.info, my usual stamping grounds, Nathan Smith discusses the need for citizenship to be voluntary. I agree with Nathan Smith wholeheartedly here. What value is citizenship if a man is forced to have it? A fellow citizen is someone you should be willing to share a meal with during the bests of time. A fellow citizen is someone you should be willing to trust in the trenches during times of war. A meal is never pleasant when your company is forced to be there, and I for one wouldn’t want to fight alongside an unwilling ally.

If citizenship is to be voluntary however the offer of citizenship should also be voluntary.  That is to say that a polity should be able to decide who it wishes to offer citizenship to. United States immigration law currently adds new citizens without much consultation to current citizens on whether they wish to accept newcomers. This is a plain violation of the right to free association.

It is for this reason that I disagree on granting US citizenship to its current illegal alien population. It is true that on occasion a majority of the US public favors granting a pathway to citizenship to the illegal alien population, but even during the best of times a substantial portion are opposed to it. I cannot see a justification to force someone to associate with another in political union when alternatives exist. To be fair, I also oppose granting citizenship to newborn babies regardless of whether their parents are recent Pakistani migrants or from Nebraska.

I favor instead replacing national citizenship in the United States with local citizenship. Cities are small enough that disgruntled minorities can easily move to somewhere more favorable to their views. City formation is also fluid enough that they can be broken up much more easily than their larger counterparts.

By no means is my proposal to radically change citizenship. The concept of citizenship was born in the Greek polis, and carried into the modern era through the Italian city-states and, to a lesser extent, the Swiss cantons and the Hanseatic League cities. Movement towards local citizenship would be the return to tradition, not a departure from it.

It was only after the French Revolution that we saw the rise of national citizenship as an idea in the western world. Arguably in the United States local citizenship was important up till the passage of the 14th amendment, which allowed the federal government to effectively nationalize citizenship.

We can already see early signs of local citizenship regaining popularity. In my home city of Los Angeles local citizenship is offered to residents who can prove they have a ‘stake’ in the future of the city. Stakeholder status is independent of migrant status and allows one to both vote and run in local elections. Stakeholder status can be achieved by showing that one lives, works, or owns property in Los Angeles.

Article 9, Section 906 of the Los Angeles City Charter readers:

“(2) neighborhood council membership will be open to everyone who lives, works or owns property in the area (stakeholders);”

In New York State there is a proposed bill, ‘The New York is Home Act’, that would grant New York state citizenship to those who have paid state taxes, have no substantial criminal record, and lived in the state for a certain number of years. This proposal is independent of one’s federal migration status.

The European Union also offers a model on how local citizenship can exist in union with federal citizenship. I favor this model the least as the EU regulates the obligations of member states towards federal citizens so heavily that the difference between local citizenships are becoming increasingly marginal. I fear that the ultimate outcome will be that, as in the United States, federal citizenship in Europe will simply become national citizenship.

My ideal world is composed of three pillars (1) local citizenship, (2) open borders, and (3) a common market. Cities could elect who they wish to grant the privilege of being involved in political life, and individuals themselves would be free to decide which city, if any, they would wish to join. There would still be those who felt they were being forced to politically associate but, an open borders regime coupled with fluid city formation and a common market, should allow this number to be minimized.


In his latest blog post on world government Brandon Christensen implicitly discusses world citizenship. I have previously aired my disagreement with Christensen on the issue of world government, but feel obliged to point out that the matter of citizenship is also one of the areas that leave me skeptical of world government. Namely my concerns are that:

(1) World citizenship would force all of humanity to associate politically, even if we rather not.

(2) World citizenship would create free rider problems among political actors. Why should one forgo the costs of becoming informed on political issues if their marginal effect on world issues is close to nill? Meanwhile larger governments, even if initially federal in nature, have a nasty tendency to increasingly take over local affairs. We need only look at the progression of transportation and education in the United States from being local affairs to federal ones.

On my to do list is to explore what the optimal amount of citizens is and a more detailed response to Christensen on the issue of world government. On the off chance that I should die before I can write the latter response, let me state for the record that I am actually quite supportive of international agreements such as NAFTA that bring us closer to a common market. I am even in favor of formalizing the loose federation that composes the western world. Where I stray is that I prefer an international order where powers like the Chinese and Russian spheres are strong enough to compete with the west.

P.P.S. I offer apologies if I drop off here and there. I lurk the consortium daily, and if I don’t reply it is because I’ve not yet mastered time management as well as others.

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6 thoughts on “Local Citizenship

  1. A tiny point as an addendum to this good essay: There is no compelling reason, practical or humanistic, to give citizenship to current illegal aliens. They can all be granted legal status without the right to vote. The European Union has been doing this for so decades. We don’t hear about it because it’s one of the facets of the Union that works very well.

    I dislike conspiracy explanations in general but, in this case, the conspiracy is so overt, it’s barely one. The Democratic Party is making the bet that most newly legalized citizens will vote Democratic. This will give it a built-in advantage comparable to that afforded by automatic Democratic African-American voters. I think the party’s calculation is correct.

  2. Another excellent post Michelangelo!

    I have just three short points (I might have longer ones when you finally get around to criticizing my argument on world government!). 1) There is a contradiction in your argument for voluntary association while simultaneously dismissing the notion of world citizenship. What if individuals would like to have the option of world citizenship? It seems to me that your argument, as it stands, prohibits choice rather than enhances it. 2) I have not done a good enough job of elaborating upon this, but world government, as I have teased it out on here, would not be forced upon anybody. I think the US republic needs to formally incorporate an option into its charter that allows administrative units throughout the world the chance to join the republic, preferably through democratic referendum. This is very different from, say, forcing Taiwan or Sonora to join the republic. 3) The free rider problem would be eliminated by federation, not created by it (see “Imperialism or Federalism: The Occupation of South Korea,” my comment on secession within the US, and my comment on Edwin’s “Secession and International Alliances” for more on this). It is true that federation would create more factions competing for a piece of the federal pie, but this in and of itself decentralizes legislation and at least forces potential pork-barreling politicians to explain themselves in a public forum (as opposed to gaining rents from military occupation). Pork barrels are very different from free riding (soldiers from South Korea would suddenly find themselves fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example).

    PS: Delacroix has an excellent essay, published in the Independent Review, on letting illegal immigrants live here without granting them the right to vote: “If Mexicans and Americans Could Cross the Border Freely.”

  3. I like the idea of a freedom of association basis for citizenship. Here’s the trouble: our brains can handle dealing with something like 100-200 people as individuals (in my case it’s closer to 10 people). If some group of people is to accept a new individual as a citizen of their locality the size of your locality can’t increase into the millions. Maybe that’s not really a problem…

    As for your question about the optimal size of a polity, my guess is that it’s something around 1 million people. Factors creating economies of scale: fixed costs of legislation, high fixed costs and low marginal costs of a good deal of administration and political infrastructure. Factors creating dis-economies of scale: common pool problems, inability to connect with others within polity, heterogeneity of preferences for publicly provided goods, high costs of moving (if our concern is the welfare of individuals… ha!).

    • Yes, I suspect that the ideal size of citizenship groups is fairly small. As you mentioned, the amount of people we can treat as individuals is fairly small. I suspect the ‘ideal’ size would be somewhere between the size of a band (100~ people) and a mid-sized city.

      It would be interesting to learn why we humans are only capable of identify so-so many people as individuals. Is it a biological constraint you figure?

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