Transferable Citizenship

In 20th century USA, many feared that if a black moved into their neighborhood, “white flight” would greatly lower their property values. In many places it was illegal to sell your house to a black. But it was never illegal to sell your house to outsiders. At the national level today, however, we actually do adopt the extreme “no house selling” analogy: we don’t let folks transfer their citizenship to foreigners.

Imagine each US citizen could transfer her citizenship to a foreigner, as long as she found somewhere else to live, [added: hadn’t recently given birth,] and wasn’t about to die, and the foreigner was at least as old, and wasn’t a terrorist, ex-con, etc. Benefits:

  • Citizenship could be collateral for loans for school, houses, etc.
  • We’ll prefer those who’d pay to come, over those who choose to leave.
  • Undesirable poor folk are especially likely to leave.
  • Retirees could be paid to retire more cheaply abroad.

Similar to those old rules against selling houses to blacks, we could also add more restrictions on to whom citizenship could be transfered. At least if we were willing to publicly own up to the racism, ethnism, etc. that such restrictions embodied.

Now folks like Julian Simon and Gary Becker have proposed selling citizenship before, without much success. But it seems to me better marketing to first focus on giving each person a direct benefit: more freedom to use an asset they already own, citizenship. First, get folks to see that selling citizenships makes as much sense as selling houses or club memberships. Then suggest that letting government add to the pool of citizenships for sale might raise revenue, and maybe help the economy as well.

This post was sparked by hearing a talk by Michael Clemens, who noted that we saw no effect on wages from either the Cuban boat lift that suddenly increased Miami’s population by 7%, nor the sudden elimination of migration restrictions within South Africa. Those sound like great pro-immigration arguments to an economist, but alas seem a bit too indirect for the public.

Added: Bryan suggests immigrants pay extra taxes, while Alex suggests giving visas to house buyers.

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  • Yvain

    I agree that this is a good idea. I think it would encounter opposition because people are opposed to getting free privilege from being born somewhere.

    Obviously just *having* the citizenship means you have free privilege from being born somewhere. But this is sort of grandfathered in to most people’s understanding, and they are able to ignore it. Once you are able to assign a cash value, it becomes much more obvious that we are giving native-born citizens an unfair advantage.

    Faced with the choice between correcting the unfair advantage, or rejecting a reasonable policy that would force them to notice the unfair advantage, most people will reject the reasonable policy.

    • Anonymous

      You sure about that last part? Even with some memetic grinding? I know most people are idiots, but that seems overly pessimistic to me.

  • Dave

    Better yet sell time share citizenships. This would not be so radical and It would be more profitable. I could be a citizen of Outer Mongolia for a week and someone from Outer Mongolia would pay me a horse and the use of his possessions for a week or what ever was agreed upon.

  • Albert Ling

    Almost any change to current immigration laws is an improvement. But coming to the US is really becoming less and less attractive (as parodied in the last south park).

    And also, does acquiring U.S. citizenship mean you have to pay taxes on all your global income? I’ve heard they tax you even if your earnings are from investments outside the U.S. and you are living most of the year outside the U.S., is this accurate? I know people that live in multiple countries at different times of the year and don’t even bother to consider the U.S. as a “home base” for these fears.

    • Someone from the other side

      Agreed.

      The people the US would presumably benefit the most from attracting quite simply cannot be bothered to move to the US anymore… The tax thing is just the final nail in the coffin, but there is plenty of other macro issues why moving to the US is a fairly bad deal for most these days.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/benjamingeer/ Benjamin Geer

    Some countries already sell citizenship. See:

    Bauder, Harald. 2008. “Citizenship as Capital: The Distinction of Migrant Labor.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 33 (3) (July 1): 315 -333.

    http://www.geography.ryerson.ca/hbauder/Citizenship.pdf

  • J. Cross

    What prevents people from selling their citizenship right before their death and passing the money on to their kids? Or is this a desirable outcome?

  • lemmy caution

    Why would this be a pro-immigration measure? To maximize the value of a citizenship, wouldn’t you want to prevent the government from giving them away or selling them?

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    This would require a Constitutional Amendment to pass. I suggest that it be combined with a balanced budget amendment so that when ever the budget isn’t balanced through taxes, that the deficit be made up by selling US citizenships, and if there are not enough takers, then taxes have to be increased.

  • Viliam Búr

    If it is legal to sell your citizenship to a foreigner, is it also legal to rent it? Technically, you sell your citizenship to a person under condition that a year later they will sell the citizenship back to you for a lower price.

    Now you can make money by renting cizitenship to pregnant foreign women. Their children born in USA will gain citizenship, so when their rent is over and they have to return to their country of origin, they have one more citizenship to sell.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Benjamin, yes they do.

    J, the post said “as long as she … wasn’t about to die.”

    Villam, we might want to forbid resale soon after baby.

  • Bryce

    I’m curious about the assertion that “We’ll prefer those who’d pay to come, over those who choose to leave.” It seems at least equally likely to me that folks who paid for their citizenship would face strong discrimination.

    On the lines of your housing analogy, we allow people to buy and sell houses all the time. And I imagine that the attractiveness of one particular neighborhood varies with time more than if we forced people to keep the home in which they were raised. In other words, you’d see fewer neighborhoods go from nice to rundown or slummy to gentrified if people were forced to stay put.

    Wouldn’t you expect a similar effect on our country if citizenship were for sale, in that the most successful and rich folks would be less likely to stick around when we’re going through bad times?

  • Oren

    Please refer to black people as “black people” or “african americans,” not “blacks.”

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Why? And should one also refer to “white flight” as “white people flight”?

      • Oren

        White flight describes flight, that’s not the issue.

        The issue is the difference between saying “I’m white” and “I am a white.” Identifying a person as an attribute is dehumanizing, and encourages objectifying social reasoning.

        I realize that in logic examples, it’s common to use non-person nouns for rational agents, be it “monks,” “jocks” etc. There, context is clearly imaginary.

        But this article refers to recent history. Using such “attribute terms” has historically been a feature of language employed by oppressors to make hurtful rhetoric sound more politically viable. “The illegals are taking our jobs” is another modern US example.

        Imagine your black friend Jerry moves in with you. Would you say “One of my roommates is a black?”

        Would you begin a joke with “A jew, a gay, and a black walked into a bar…”?

        http://ubyssey.ca/features/how-words-dehumanize/

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Seniors are getting too much money from the government. Economists make many simplifying assumptions. Gamers just love contests. None of those seem dehumanizing to me, though they all refer to people in terms of attributes. You are a commenter, no disrespect intended or apparently given.

      • Oren

        Activities are not attributes.

        Studying economics, gaming and blog commenting are all activities, therefore “economist,” “gamer” and “commenter” are not attribute pronouns.

        While “old” and “elderly” are attributes, “senior” is ambiguous and uncommon. I would be interested to talk about the term “senior citizen” later.

        My un-addressed argument is that historical context matters in the use of these terms.

        I attribute Robin Hanson as being white, wealthy and male, and these attributes have historically been default loci of authority in western societies. That is, “being” these attributes has historically lent a person respect, trust and authority.

        In these same societies (like the one this article is set in), deviating from those authoritative attributes in turn has historically lent a person disrespect, distrust, and dis-agency.

        Interestingly, this very article notes that it was “illegal to sell your house to a black.” This usage implies that people are by default non-black (although it never says it). It also fails to note that it was “illegal for a black person to buy a house (from white people).”

        This usage treats white people as default and agentive, whereas black people are specially-attributed and robbed of agency. This is dehumanizing language that insidiously perpetuates historical oppression.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Ownership implies the right to alienate, and citizenship is more of a relationship. You can’t alienate your reputation or marital status to someone else. You are talking about changing the law, but as daedalus2u pointed out this would require a constitutional change.

    Were those people in 20th century wrong to fear blacks moving into their neighborhoods and producing white flight? I didn’t live through it and instead have to settle for Steve Sailer’s reaction to Clybourne Park but other sources I’ve read basically confirm his take as the conventional wisdom of what happened.

    Unlike Caplan, I want migrants to pay an up-front cost rather than a percentage precisely because I want to screen for high-skill immigrants. My overall proposal for immigration policy is here.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Would you give neighbors a veto over house sales? How obvious is it that this requires constitutional change? Can’t someone who leaves to be a citizen of another nation be seen as outside of the US “jurisdiction”?

  • Matt

    Thoughts in no particular order:

    – Perhaps it would make sense to combine this with an amendment that for their children, citizens should purchase citizenship from the government or other citizens? Otherwise, this seems like fiat currency creation by other means, that is locked to the birth rate.

    – I would presume you would restrict a person to one purchased citizenship from each nation, rather than allowing them to acquire several (or millions) with all appropriate voting rights?

    – I would think also with the current marriage citizenship arrangements (and family reunification setup, at least in the EU), it would make sense for people to sell their citizenship, and then go “Oh wait, I actually want to be with my husband/wife/relative.” and apply for residence as a spouse and acquire citizenship again through this route. Perhaps this is a bug, perhaps a feature.

    – I’d expect this would encourage immigration restrictionism – freer immigration would reduce the relative value of a given citizenship.

    – Also, why not allow people to sell every aspect of their legal identity? If we’re in the business of people selling communally agreed aspects of their legal person… For instance, people could sell their legal blackness or whiteness, or maleness or femaleness, or their legal age, or their legal parents, &c. If someone doesn’t need a legal advantage that comes from one of these categories, and would prefer money, why not allow them to sell it to someone else? After all, free uncoerced exchange should promote the general welfare.

    – Selling citizenship is selling a bundle of political rights, the right to vote. So a transition from citizenship as a birthright to a commodity would seem analogous to the transition from military and civil offices from hereditary and by common assent to commission by purchase.

  • Fergus Mackinnon

    ‘Retirees could be paid to retire more cheaply abroad.’

    So should we set up care-homes-in-the-sun to make use of cheaper labour?