What Is Citizenship?

Let me drop the mask. I am not, in fact, a libertarian. You may have guessed that.

I’m not a libertarian, and yet I may be as libertarian as possible without actually being libertarian. I walk right up to that Rubicon, without crossing it. And the reason why I refuse to cross it is ultimately the reason why I am writing here about military service.

The question that is posed to us via the example of military service is: what is citizenship?

What does it mean to be a citizen? Jason Kuznicki hit the nail on the head when he decided to title this issue “What do we owe?” for that is precisely the question that concerns us here. It is one of the key questions of political philosophy, and the answer has a momentous impact on all human life.

If there can be no libertarian case for military service, then it is because libertarianism considers citizenship as, at best, a necessary evil. That no one has duties to one’s countrymen that one does not have to anybody else. That political communities have no value in themselves, and are even inherently evil (even though that evil may, in some very limited cases, be necessary).

Under this reading, then, to be a libertarian is to say “I owe nothing.”

Only one type of obligation is legitimate, and that is obligations that I have explicitly and specifically consented to.[1]

Let us pause for a second to note that nobody believes this. We all believe, for example, that we have obligations to our families, even though nobody signs a contract to that effect. We all also believe, or at least I hope, that we have moral obligations; the Golden Rule is more demanding than “leave him alone,” and yet it is an obligation thrust upon us.[2]

But let us explore what this means. What’s so wrong with saying that man owes nothing? Don’t we all agree that liberty is good? What’s the intrinsic value of citizenship? Why should I owe the state anything?

In this essay, I will argue the following:

    • That social contract theory is the best construct for relations between individuals and the state;
    • That the Modern, liberal-democratic nation-state is the best instrument we have for protecting freedom and ensuring human flourishing and that it is worth defending;
    • That defending the Modern, liberal-democratic nation-state entails holding a “thick” notion of citizenship, not a “thin” one;
    • That political communities are natural communities and therefore desirable;
    • That most people do, in fact, “owe” something to their nation.

1. Yes, the Social Contract Really Works

Mr. Kuznicki gives up the game when, writing that taxation is wrong, he links to an essay arguing that states have no authority whatsoever.

The way we justify the authority of states nowadays is to postulate a “social contract” by which a community of citizens have set out their obligations to each other, obligations that are mediated (at least in part) by the state, which exists to enforce the contract.

The smart-alecky response to this idea is to note that one has never been asked to sign any document labeled “social contract,” and thus that one is not bound by it. Of course, people who tend to say these things also tend to believe strongly in concepts such as natural rights or the non-aggression principle, which prove as elusive to empirical investigation as leprechauns and social contracts. These things are what we might call normative fictions — concepts that we make true by acting as if they were true. Do “universal human rights” actually “exist” in some sort of Platonic sense? I happen to believe they do, but the great thing is that I don’t have to prove it to make them useful. All I have to prove is that we’re all better off if we act as if they do.

The Moderns whom Mr. Kuznicki (rightly) rates so highly originally came up with social contract theory as a way to restrain the state. The state can only do what the contract allows it to do, and if the state breaks the contract, it loses its legitimacy. Moreover, since the state exists only to enforce the contract, it is the writers of the contract — in a democracy, “the people” (another convenient normative fiction, that one!) — who have the ultimate authority and who get to decide what it is the state can and cannot do, and what the contract says. This authority of the people, in turn, is not mere vox populi, nor is it a tyranny of the majority, since this authority is only legitimate insofar as it produces a social contract that protects everyone’s preexisting natural rights. It’s really quite an elegant and useful intellectual edifice. It’s an edifice that rests on an axiom that, by definition, is unprovable, but since that’s true of all intellectual edifices, pointing it out doesn’t actually get you anywhere. Yes, the turtles do go all the way down.

2. Why the Modern State Is Precious

But the social contract is not just a neat philosophical tool. It is also a foundation for one of the most sublime achievements of humanity, which is the liberal-democratic nation-state.

It is important to note the brutality and the horror of the conditions of life that have prevailed for most of human existence on Earth, and that still prevail for far too many today, in which injustice is the norm and justice the exception. Through an arduous process that lasted many centuries, humanity has come up with a form of collective organization that is simply incommensurably better than any other that has been tried.

The liberal-democratic nation-state, powered by the social contract, is by far the best tool we’ve ever designed for safeguarding our natural rights. So far, any alternative that has been tried has led only to violence, destruction, and injustice. It also enables peoples to live by values that they hold in common. Oh, it is true that, like everything else on this Earth, it is far from perfect. But it is still worth fighting for.

It is also worth noting that the liberal-democratic nation-state was birthed by an arduous process of trial and error. Mr. Kuznicki faults me for pressing Milton Friedman into service (pun intended) of my ideas,[3] but I’ll now enlist Hayek. Hayek’s genius was in understanding the role of knowledge in any collective action. The reason why central planning can’t work, and why free markets work, is because no central planner can have or process enough information to make a good decision, whereas individuals and business managers, being much closer to what it is they’re trying to do, can process enough information to make good decisions. But this is true not just for markets, but for many, if not most, areas of human life: hence the spontaneous order that counterintuitively arises from unstructured trial and error processes. The liberal-democratic nation-state emerged out of the chaos and bloodshed of human history as the best framework for human flourishing. Those who understand the wisdom of the trial and error process and the limitations of ideologues tend to have a healthy respect for the outcomes of history, and tend to act by the rule of Chesterton’s Fence:

[L]et us say… a fence or gate [was] erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

The liberal-democratic nation-state is a kludge, but that is why it’s successful. A nation-state is a hybrid. Its national character appeals to our feelings of tribal affiliation: my fellow citizens are my kinsmen. But it is not mere tribe, since this tribal feeling, which is like fire, is channeled via the state into a non-clientelist, legalistic order. The nation state is therefore both abstract, and not. Patriotic Americans love America both because of abstract ideals about freedom and because of deeply personal experiences of belonging. To be American is not defined by race, or creed, or ethnicity, and yet most Americans are born into their country like into a family. The state, in turn, is not a mere instrument of violence if, via the social contract, it respects the liberal democratic order and protects our natural rights. Liberal democracy is also a kludge: respecting individual rights is in tension with majority rule, yet we find that without one the other quickly collapses. The edifice is as complex — and fragile — as it is precious, and those who merely point to the apparent contradictions miss the deeper, underlying order.

The European Union is an attempt to build a liberal-democratic state without a nation, and for all its merits, its current disarray is a cautionary tale (thankfully one of the least bloody) of the folly of ignoring the lessons of history. Germans, who were very willing to impoverish themselves to welcome their East German brethren, feel German first and European second, and are therefore reluctant to bail out their southern neighbors. Meanwhile, although New York State is a net funder of federal benefits and Mississippi a net recipient, New Yorkers do not understand themselves to be “bailing out” other states of the Union. If Europe had been a nation, there simply would not have been a Euro crisis.

In other words, we find while it’s possible to imagine in theory structures that could allow us the same flourishing as the liberal-democratic nation-state, we find that in practice they’re not possible, at least for the foreseeable future. And so we find that the liberal-democratic nation-state is extremely precious.

3. “Thick” vs. “Thin” Citizenship

Once we understand this importance of the liberal-democratic nation-state, the question arises of what is needed for its continued success. And to pose this question is to pose the question of citizenship, and how we should understand this concept.

I would postulate that what Mr. Kuznicki proposes is, at most, a “thin” version of citizenship, one where the only thing that can be expected of the citizen is the bare minimum so that society does not collapse, and one where moreover this “thin” citizenship is as best a necessary evil to be endured for as long as the state remains necessary. [4]

My argument is that “thin” citizenship will ultimately lead to the collapse of nations where it is seen as the standard, and that therefore we need a “thick” notion of citizenship, one where citizenship is viewed as a web of obligations—from individual to community as well as from community to individual.

The reason is both intuitively obvious and theoretically tricky. In theory, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why a state needs “thick” citizenship, but in practice there is. Here I will quote another writer who agrees with libertarians on most issues, and yet ultimately describes himself as a conservative: Jim Manzi, who writes in his indispensable book Uncontrolled (p. 219):

[A]ll real organizations that succeed over time are held together partially by common assent to ideals, and are not perceived by the participants are merely rational deals between entirely self-interested parties. Whether biochemical illusion or transcendent reality, this belief appears to be important to organizational success.

Any sustainably great collective — IBM, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the U.S. Marine Corps, the University of Cambridge, or the United States of America—appeals to the rational self-interest of its members but also creates a sense of irrational identification with the enterprise. Individuals within each will, to some extent and in some circumstances, sacrifice narrowly construed perceived self-interest for the good of the whole. When more of the participants do this more of the time than do those in competing collectives, it will tend, all else equal, to lead to competitive advantage, collective success, and greater success for the individuals within it.

Applied to citizenship, this says that without thick citizenship, liberal-democratic nation-states will eventually fail. I will add one thing, which is that any sustainably great collective creates this sense of irrational identification by creating what management curricula refer to as a culture, or a shared set of values, and that in turn this culture only thrives for long if it is made real, that is to say if these values are reflected in the collective’s actions and not simply as nice words on paper and frontispieces.

The best book on the 1940 collapse of France is The Strange Defeat, by the great social historian Marc Bloch, one of the heroes of the nation-state and of liberalism. It should be part of any liberal arts curriculum, because through the collapse of France, we see how just and liberal societies sometimes commit suicide. For the Fall of France was essentially an act of collective suicide: in terms of steel and bullets, the French army and the Wehrmacht were roughly evenly matched, and yet the collapse was stunning and thorough. Beyond the military reasons, which as a decorated military intelligence officer he understood quite well, Bloch points to the divisions of French society, in a context where nobody behaved as though there was a common purpose to the French nation. No component of society emerges unscathed from his terrifying analysis: political parties, unions, the press, elites, and the people at large. Though he does not use those terms, it is clear from Bloch’s analysis that what caused the collapse of France (and, with it, Europe) was a thin citizenship.[5] Think of the millions of lives that would have been saved if France had — as it was perfectly capable — invaded Germany while the Wehrmacht was away in Poland instead of fighting the shameful Phoney War.[6]

To the idea that military service provides for the nation’s defense, both of my libertarian interlocutors have responded that any society worth defending would find enough volunteers to defend itself. Empirically that may or may not be true, but it is interesting that it is essentially an appeal to the right of free-riding. “I don’t have to be a patriot as long as enough people are.” This is true enough. But it’s also easy to see that a society where that is the prevailing incentive would inexorably decline.

A just liberal-democratic nation-state, in other words, is one worth being a citizen of, one worth having obligations to, one worth fighting for, because it ensures great human flourishing and preserves a great nation and culture. For humans to flourish, we need the liberal-democratic nation-state to flourish, and for the liberal-democratic nation-state to flourish, we need thick citizenship.

4. Political Communities Are Natural Communities; Or, Why the Moderns Need the Ancients

In his essay, Mr. Kuznicki is right to take me to task for being guilty of a bit of a sleight-of-hand, which is blurring the distinction between the Ancients’ view of liberty and the Moderns’. I confess to the blurring. First, because I think they are blurred — as much as we try to get rid of them, we can’t seem to be able to; less “great-grandfathers,” the Ancients are more older brothers, or perhaps Jiminy Crickets, to the Moderns.

And second, I think the distinction should be blurred. Mr. Kuznicki writes that “when the ancients wrote of liberty, they meant something like an obligation to participate actively in government.” I certainly agree that they thought it was part of it, but it is not reducible to that. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the Ancients thought of liberty as something like participation in a just moral order.[7]

Here, Aristotle is our best guide. Aristotle thought that a polity should be oriented towards justice, and that therefore men had a duty to participate in it. And what’s so wrong about that?

But why is the polity important, as such? Why is it that we should pursue justice in part through participation in the affairs of the City?

Aristotle answers: because man is a political animal. Ever does man seek to live collectively, and nowhere do we find apolitical communities. Along with the family, political communities are natural communities. By our nature, we humans form political associations (here we see the seed of social contract theory) in order to pursue justice, and fidelity to our best selves entails a participation, ordered towards justice, in our natural communities.

Is this true? Here I am tempted to cite Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkley’s immaterialism. The “proof” that political communities are natural communities is as elusive as the proof that the universe exists. But the record of history seems crystal clear: nowhere do we see examples of apolitical communities, or indeed of apolitical human existence, save perhaps for that of hermits and feral children.

Meanwhile, animals are apolitical. A pack of wolves is a highly complex social organism, but the social order is determined by instinct and is ordered only towards the continued existence of the pack. I don’t think we’ve ever seen wolves debate on whether it would be better to elect the alpha male by a vote, or an omega wolf argue that his treatment violates his natural rights.

I am a thoroughgoing Modern. I buy the whole bag: Enlightenment, universal human rights, individual liberty, and all the rest. But I also believe that for this Modern version of liberty to thrive, it needs just a little bit of the Ancient in it, that is to say, a recognition that liberty is not merely the protection of negative rights but also that it entails a positive duty to use this liberty in a way that is ordered towards justice.[8] Between the democratic age and the rivers of blood, the 20th century is a story about the greatness of Modernity, but also the horror that awaits when Modernity is not saved from itself.

If political communities are natural communities, then, the escape from politics that some libertarians sometimes fantasize about is both illusory and immoral.

And here we get to the best statement I’ve come up with of the reason why I am not a libertarian: people form political communities not merely to secure their individual natural rights but also to live by a commonly shared set of values, and this is good.

I am fairly confident that if you were to run opinion polls in Sweden and ask the citizens of that country whether they would be willing to trade higher economic growth for higher inequality, the vast majority of respondents would say “no.” Swedes have decided that they want to live by a certain set of values, and one of these values is a relatively strong egalitarianism, and to have the kind of society that they want, it is necessary to have the state redistribute a lot of money.

When libertarians see this and they say that this level of taxation impoverishes everyone, that social democracy hurts the very people it is supposed to help when, for example, labor market regulations make it harder for immigrants and low-skilled workers to find jobs, or when excessive welfare spending creates poverty traps, I am right there with them. When libertarians see this and scream “Theft!” I have to roll my eyes.

Yet I really believe that the natural right of private property “preexists” the state, and that there really is a level where taxation becomes confiscatory, and therefore actual theft, and that there is a moment where we leave considerations of optimality to enter considerations of moral right and wrong. But I also believe that Swedes have a right to live in a society that lives according to their values, and to collectively, democratically decide on a certain level of redistribution. I believe that as long as it does not shade into confiscation this is perfectly legitimate, and that a “suboptimal” level of taxation is not actually illegitimate.

And why should it be any other way? I wouldn’t want to live in Sweden, and I combat politically those who would remake America in Sweden’s image, but it would be churlish not to recognize that Swedish society has a lot to recommend for itself and that it has accomplished many admirable things for its citizens. The world is better for Sweden existing as Sweden, and I would no more remake the world in Sweden’s image than I would remake it in Hong Kong’s.

As a Christian and a classical liberal, I intensely dislike the French notion of laïcité, which too often seeks to reduce our natural rights to free exercise of religion to a mere private right of “conscience,” which is really no right at all: Forcing you to believe or not believe something is, at least for now, the only thing the state cannot do, so granting you a right to conscience alone is meaningless. But I also recognize that striking the proper balance between religious expression and toleration is a complex issue, which has been working itself out in the politics of many countries for centuries now. And while I think America strikes a better balance than France, I should be ashamed of myself if I compared France’s treatment of religion belief to, say, Pol Pot’s, and I infinitely prefer laïcité to a theocracy, even (especially!) one run for the benefit of my own denomination.

Meanwhile, if your society’s idea of “living according to shared values” entails buying and selling human beings as property, I say that this is illegitimate, that it violates fundamental human rights, and that your society really needs to get new values.

There is an obvious tension between the notion of individual rights and the notion of living according to shared values, but this tension is not an invention of proto-fascist statists. It is a tension that arises as a result of human nature, because all humans desire both liberty and justice. Resolving this tension is the work of politics in the liberal-democratic nation-state, and it is highly imperfect, but it is also highly superior to any others that have been tried.

One reason why America is such a great nation is because it has found a trick that helps tremendously ease this tension, which is subsidiarity. Residents of San Francisco’s Castro District live according to different values than the Amish, who live according to different values than residents of Las Vegas’s strip, and yet they still share an underlying set of values that makes them all Americans. And yet this system is not perfect either: it took much too long for Americans to realize that subsidiarity cannot protect slavery and racial discrimination and remain compatible with American values.


[1] This idea that private contractual obligations are the only legitimate ones naturally leads to the thorny, classic problem of “Are people allowed to sell themselves into slavery? Why/why not?”

[2] To be clear, I am not arguing that the Golden Rule creates obligations to the state. I am simply making the point that we accept that there are some obligations that are thrust upon us simply for our existing.

[3] My cat’s name is Milton Friedman. I have made “Free to Choose” mandatory (!) viewing for my children. I am well aware of Friedman’s stance on military service. But I also believe he had more respect for the state as guarantor of freedom than many libertarians realize, and that he was right to.

[4] I hate to bring this up, but it’s hard not to see parallels between this notion and the Marxist vision of the socialist state as merely a transition point to stateless communism.

[5] Some may detect a whiff of perhaps quasi-fascism with these ideas of “uniting the nation in a common purpose”, but not here. Bloch was a liberal through and through. As a French Jew who lived through the Dreyfus Affair, he understood full well that the state can be used as a tool of oppression.

[6] Some will doubtless point out that 1930s France did have military conscription. But I am not arguing that conscription creates thick citizenship. I am arguing that thick citizenship is desirable, and that in turn it justifies military service.

[7] Or, perhaps, the Ancients filtered through Christianity, which is totally fine with me.

[8] Yes, there are some ways in which such a formulation could be used to justify illiberal outcomes. Let’s agree that that would be wrong.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argues that libertarians ought to support compulsory military service, at least in principle, as a means of defending a free society. While it is true that such service entails compulsion, it is also true that the freest peoples in all of history have relied upon it.

    Compulsory service would have some good public choice effects as well. In particular, it would change the incentives in the decision to go to war: When all must bear the sacrifice, wars will be fewer and less deadly. Finally, Gobry notes that our ancestors commonly bore similar burdens, and we owe them a debt of gratitude — one he believes is best discharged by following in their footsteps.

Response Essays

  • In a vehement dissent, Jason Kuznicki argues that the so-called libertarian case for compulsory military service is an illusion. To the ancients, liberty meant something very different, and we should reject their definition, which rests on militarism and compulsion. Our liberty rests on commerce, not on conquest. Taxes are at best a necessary evil, and conscription is always worse than taxation. Moreover, it is not at all apparent how we might settle a debt of gratitude with the past. If we even have one.

  • Zach Maurin argues that what we need now is not universal military service, but universal civilian service. In his proposal, this service will not be legally required, but it will be federally subsidized and available to all who want it. He argues that there are many ways the United States could be made better, and he suggests that civilian service is the way to accomplish these goals, from feeding the hungry, to education, to health care.

  • Jacob Hornberger asks what the advocates of compulsory national service would do with determined resisters: Are they prepared to use force? If resistance continues, are they prepared to kill? Hornberger insists on the moral right to resist coercion, regardless of the nobility of the cause for which it is deployed. To him, it is a question of trust: Can free people be trusted to take care of themselves and their society? Or do they require some coercion? If they are coerced, they are not free, he concludes.