What Is Citizenship? Continued

I have argued for what I’ve called “thick citizenship” from a 30,000 feet view of history, and on chiefly utilitarian grounds: thick citizenship is desirable because it makes us better off. As I’ve said, I think it should be sufficient to ground a political philosophy. But let us nevertheless ask: is it right?

Let us tackle the question posed by this Cato Unbound issue: what do we owe?

The best way to understand why we owe things to our nation is to analogize it to the family. This instantly sets off alarm bells in libertarian minds, and quite rightly so: it is demeaning to think of citizens as children, wholly dependent on, and subservient to, the state. But we can proceed nonetheless if we remember that it is merely an analogy, and also when we decide to analogize the relationship between nations and citizens not as the relationship between a parent and an underage child, but between a parent and an adult, independent child.

The analogy is also appropriate because we can, along with Aristotle, see that the family and the polity are both natural communities, and therefore they share characteristics.

Indeed, it’s easy to see how many things the family and the nation have in common:

They can be awful. Let us first grant that, like nations, some families can be awful. Abusive, cruel, criminal. Most of us think that in general people have moral duties to their families, yet we would not begrudge a child for disowning egregiously, cruelly abusive parents. We might also think that before disowning them, we would first have a duty to try to change them.

They are not chosen, yet chosen. Nobody chooses which family they are born into, or which nation. And yet we choose our family, and our nation, every day. I didn’t ask to be born of my parents, but I still willingly participate in the life of my family. We accept that merely by being born I received some obligations towards my family, but at the same time these obligations are not absolute, and not merely by blood. My mother is my mother because she bore me and birthed me, but also because I “make” her my mother, by accepting her as such and by respecting and honoring her.

We can leave; we can join. Practically no societies, and certainly none of the advanced ones, see families as being defined exclusively by blood ties. The man whom I call my father is not related to me by blood, and there are people who are related to me by blood with whom I refuse to associate. For most citizens, they are citizens simply by virtue of being born where they are. But, thank God, we have a natural right to leave our homelands and to not only join another polity but make it our homeland.

They have values. Polities like to solemnly inscribe their values in documents and on the front of buildings, and this is good. Just because families rarely, if ever, do so, does not mean that they do not live according to certain values. Each family has its own distinct set of mores-—whether it be a language, or a culture, or moral values, or traditions, or a certain way of looking at the world—that sets it apart from every other family (even happy families are not all alike), and in turn we are both shaped by those values and able to understand them and live by them in our own individual way (or, exceptionally, reject them altogether).

Attachment is justified by self-interest, and yet by more than self-interest. Why should I take care of my parents in retirement and in sickness? Is it because by taking care of me when I was a child they implicitly enrolled me in a “contract” whereby I owe obligations to them in return for their expense on me? In some sense, certainly. Is it because, in some Kantian way, the world would be worse off if nobody took care of their elders, and so I shouldn’t do that? Well, sure. But that’s not the reason, is it? The reason is that it’s the right thing to do. In some sense, the family only persists as an institution because it is congruent with our best self-interests as members of a species, and as I have said, a family which actively undermines its members’ best self-interests justly sees the members’ obligations toward it weakened, and even abolished. And yet, if we are to understand human beings as moral beings, we have to see ourselves as having duties toward our families that are not just defined by self-interest, even in the broadest sense of that word.

Duty to them is not viewed as exclusive of universal duties. It is often postulated that patriotism is contrary to universal human rights because it is exclusionary and because it elevates some class of people over the rest. But we see that in the case of the family, this just isn’t true. We all agree that we have stronger duties to our family than to the rest of the human fellowship, and yet we do not view this as being contradictory to our duties to all members of the human family. If some person I like, but only vaguely know, says “I’m in some financial trouble at the moment, can I crash on your couch for the next three months?” it is morally acceptable for me to say thanks, but no thanks.[1]

If my mother asks the same, it would be morally reprehensible for me not to say yes. In the case of the family, we see no contradictions. I have moral duties to all members of the human family, and yet we understand that in practice and in every day life, the discharge of our universal moral duties is first (but not exclusively) channeled through our natural communities.

Ultimately, then, we see that families are natural communities that justify attachment through both gratitude and shared values. You have duties to your family because without them you wouldn’t be alive, because they nourished you and helped you prosper, and because they provide succor even in your independence. But at the same time, our duty to family is not merely a self-interested deal between parties. We see that the institution would collapse if it were actively opposed to the self-interest of its members, but we also see that not only for it to thrive but as a matter of moral duty, we need to go beyond our immediate self-interest in our service to the family. We also see that we are attached to our family because its members share certain values, however ill-defined they may be. We see that in this attachment, in a mysterious way, kinship ties are bound up with more abstract notions of justice.

We also see that even though our nature imposes on us obligations towards these natural communities, these obligations can be dissolved if the community fails to make itself worthy of them. It would be the height of cruelty to berate a North Korean exile for failing to uphold her patriotic duty to her state.[2] But you’ll forgive me for seeing Americans who make money in America and then expatriate and give up their citizenship to pay lower taxes as, well, not morally righteous people, even if I agree that American taxes are too high.

What we see, in other words, is that our human nature places on us certain moral obligations towards our natural communities—the family and the nation—just as these communities have obligations to us, and that this is good.

I will end with a sort of philosophically unrigorous appeal to intuition and common sense. It is just not true that we as human beings owe nothing. It is just true that kinship ties are part of us, and that they are good when they are ordered toward justice.

It is true that if you are born in an advanced, prosperous, liberal country, you have been granted positively enormous privilege by mere birthright. It is true that this birthright is not free, that it was built as an edifice, for you, by your elders, and that the morally correct response to this is to feel gratitude to them, just like the morally correct response to membership in a natural community is service to it ordered toward justice. It is true that your forefathers gave their lives so that you may prosper, and that this blood is a debt.

What do we owe? Plenty, and we can see that this is good.


[1] You can postulate a morality where that also would be wrong, and as a Christian I can’t really say that it is wrong. But I will say that it’s awfully hard to base a political philosophy on it.

[2] In fact, I would argue that there is no North Korean state (except in the Westphalian sense), since North Korea is a totalitarian country, and totalitarianism properly understood is the negation of the state.

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.