The Birthright Lottery and a Global Political Equality Movement

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Birthright Lottery cover

Last year, I read Ayelet Shachar's important book, The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality.  She discusses the book herself here, and I won't replicate that concise summary (though it is worth reading).  The book's core insights are powerful:

  • Birthright citizenship is a form of property entitlement by which relatively wealthy people transfer a bundle of rights and opportunities to their children.  

  • The global citizenship regime acts to seal poor people into enclosed political and economic systems which limit their life opportunities.  The result of these limitations, backed by the full force of the sovereign state, is that only 3% of the global population migrate from their countries of origin. 
     
  • This regime is unjust.  It is based solely on accident of birth.  It is grossly inconsistent with democratic principles held in liberal societies.  
Shachar's premises seem obvious once seen in print, and  you wonder why these ideas aren't more widely acknowledged.  In Birthright Lottery, she builds a new legal framework for defining citizenship based on those premises.  

The existing citizenship regime is built upon two legal principles: jus soli (citizenship defined by place of birth) and jus sanguinis (citizenship defined by blood).  These principles represent an improvement upon previous regimes based on transfer of rights and property within bounded family groups alone, and have led to a just legal and political theoretical framework within liberal sovereign polities. 

But the framework falls apart in an anarchic international political system of sovereign states of radically disparate wealth and power, and becomes instead a mechanism for perpetuating inequality.  Those who are excluded from the citizenry of wealthy states do not have political equality or equality of opportunity.  Meanwhile, a global educated elite can travel, and often live and work, abroad.  Members of the cosmopolitan elite have easier access to membership in polities outside of their countries of origin.  They can freely transfer capital across sovereign boundaries.  They are not constrained by the international political system; rather, the system works to preserve the elite's wealth and status much as the aristocratic transfer system of Old Europe did in years past.  


Shachar proposes a new legal principle for defining political membership groups: jus nexi.  This new framework would "[establish] that the social fact of membership offers a valid foundation for access to political membership" and would "[highlight] the significance of developing ties and identification with the country over time as the basis for bestowing citizenship and its benefits on long-term residents."
Such a framework would provide long-term solutions to the systemic problems that beset national immigration regimes: political and economic exclusion of people who immigrated in contravention of immigration laws and stateless individuals or groups.  However, the framework would only improve access to citizenship, it would not fully address disparities in wealth and power between sovereign states. 

Shachar also proposes a global wealth transfer mechanism by which wealthy countries would  pay a "birthright privilege levy" to poor countries.  Implementing the transfer levy would create a global system of distributive justice similar to the social safety net adopted by wealthy societies.  In theory, this transfer levy would diminish international inequality.

Incorporating the principle of jus nexi into existing citizenship regimes is an essential and necessary step toward rectifying the problem of political exclusion by citizenship.  The transfer levy could also do much to reduce inequality of opportunity.  But there is a step missing in this analysis.  Before any of this can happen, the political conditions must be created that would allow it to happen.  This will require wide public acknowledgement of the truth of Shachar's premises.

Shachar's proposals can only be realized at the end of a long process of enlightenment and struggle.  That is where the heavy lifting must be done, by a global social justice movement which does not request equality, but demands it.  This has always been the path to justice.  Privileged groups are first ignorant of their privilege, then they deny it, and then they fight to preserve it.  By and large, liberal societies are not even aware of Shachar's premises.  We are still a long way from being able to implement the safety net she proposes.  


In the United States, to pick the country with which I am most familiar, the social safety net available to citizens has reduced, but not eliminated, longstanding income and opportunity disparities.  Many of those disparities arose from the oppression of specific ethnic or religious social groups.  The first stage of the existing transfer regime only emerged in the 1930s during a decade-long global economic depression and after a robust and aggressive labor movement demanded it.  The second stage of the safety net was implemented in the 1960s in the midst of tumultuous social change instigated by the civil rights movements of that era.

Those labor and civil rights movements emerged from 150 years of struggle to expand the citizenry itself and broaden access to political participation beyond white male landholders.  This process is far from complete even within the United States, engendering wide dissatisfaction with the political system and sparking the Occupy and Tea Party movements.  

Shachar envisions a public service component to her proposed global transfer levy by which "citizens-of-privilege are transformed into foot soldiers in the fight to eradicate the staggering consequences of birthright citizenship in today's world."  But social equality movements have never been formed or sustained in this way.  Rather, they come from fierce struggle by oppressed communities themselves.  I believe there is a place in a transnational equality movement for allies from privileged membership groups, but such allies must face the reality of systemic global inequality and their own status in the hierarchy of oppression.  

There are some discrete, mostly national, efforts to liberalize or transcend national citizenship regimes, often constricted by the same systems they fight against.  The immigrant rights movement in the United States, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the Kurds in the Middle East come to mind.  These movements are generally not connected to each other, with the possible exception of the transnational environmental movement.  

A nonviolent transnational political equality movement built on core human rights will be necessary to reform the global citizenship regime.  Some possible guiding principles of such a movement are recognized international human rights, others have not yet found formal expression:

  • the right to freedom from arbitrary or unjust imprisonment
  • the right to family life
  • full access to protection from persecution in one's country of citizenship
  • the right to leave one's country of citizenship--and necessary corresponding right to enter other sovereign territory
  • the absolute right to travel--including the right to leave and return to one's adopted country
  • access to political participation in one's place of residence
Though radical, this vision is, like Shachar's proposals, an incremental one.  It is necessarily pacifist.  Marxists and labor unionists may consider such ideas to be distinctly unoriginal, since the labor struggle has long been explicitly international.  However, there is nothing inevitable about global political or economic equality.  And while political inequality and economic exploitation are always connected, and not always conceptually distinguishable, I believe political equality is a prerequisite to economic equality.  

There are no shortcuts to achieving global political equality.  Just as immigration advocacy groups in the United States have attempted to change the immigration legal regime without first creating the necessary social conditions for such change, and failed, so Shachar's transfer mechanism represents an untenable shortcut to a late-stage result of a long-term human rights struggle.  The first step towards immigration legal reform is to articulate a framework of full political equality, which is only beginning to emerge in the immigrant rights struggle in the United States.  

Shachar's analytical framework is innovative and eye-opening.  The principle of jus nexi is a crucial insight and will be foundational to any just citizenship regime.  However, the principle of jus nexi may not alone be sufficient to achieve equality, as it represents an improved framework for defining membership groups but still anticipates bounded sovereign membership groups.  And any transfer levy mechanism would only be possible after protracted transnational human rights struggle, and might even then be unworkable.  

I believe the citizenship regime itself, and consequently the anarchic international political system, will need to be reimagined.  Do you have any ideas about what a better citizenship regime would look like?  What do you think of Shachar's premises and proposals?  Please share your thoughts in comments. 

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on January 7, 2012 3:59 PM.

Joe Arpaio Accused of "Most Egregious Racial Profling" in the Country was the previous entry in this blog.

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