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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."

"Economists are supposed to be good at reckoning costs and benefits. But more often than not, economists with no clue about how the legal system actually functions, simply assume that the transaction costs of the legal system are slight. They see a system that has been around for hundreds of years, and they assume it works the way their elementary school civics class taught them it works.

But the legal system doesn't work. Or more accurately, it doesn't work for anyone except those with the most resources. Not because the system is corrupt. I don't think our legal system (at the federal level, at least) is at all corrupt. I mean simply because the costs of our legal system are so astonishingly high that justice can practically never be done."

--Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, Penguin 2004, pp. 304-05.

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