Two decades ago, during a wave of handwringing about “the new nationalism” sparked by the war in Bosnia, the late political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote that the nation-state remains “the best way we have thus far devised for protecting and sustaining a way of life in common.” Yet the nation-state is an abstraction, meaningful only insofar as it shapes the way individuals understand and order their interpersonal relationships. As Roger Scruton has written, citizenship defines the relationship between the individual and the state—which is to say between the citizen, other citizens, and non-citizens.
William B. Allen, whose kind remarks on a post I wrote for Law and Liberty earlier this year I have yet to acknowledge, has helpfully trained the lens on the personal experience of citizenship. Allen’s explication, also in these pages, of the unique character of American citizenship invites further reflection on the meaning of citizenship in an era of global contact. The meaning of citizenship in turn impinges on important debates regarding U.S. trade, immigration, and security. It also bears on our self-understanding as members of political communities and human beings. The debate on national sovereignty necessarily concerns the essence of citizenship, the obligations it entails, and the policies that best support it.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a citizen is “a member of a political community who enjoys the rights and assumes the duties of membership.”
Political theorist David Miller argues that citizenship is inherently exclusive and reciprocal. Rather, it is exclusive precisely because it must be reciprocal—citizens agree, explicitly or tacitly, to live together according to the laws and customs of a political community, to participate in a “political relationship.” Exclusive reciprocity within a political relationship is the necessary and sufficient condition for citizenship as such.
The particular set of rights and duties that citizenship entails differs among different regimes and nations. In many nations, military service is obligatory for citizens. The Israeli actress Gal Gadot, of deserved fame for playing the title role in the movie Wonder Woman, recently defended her own military service in a wonderfully circumspect manner: “I wish no country had the need for an army. But in Israel serving is part of being an Israeli. You’ve got to give back to the state. You give two or three years, and it’s not about you.” Here is an example of meaningful citizenship.
The sharp line drawn between national and foreign—the idea of membership in a “we” that is distinct from “they,” to borrow terminology from Scruton—is the source of the trouble with the idea of the nation-state and the exclusive notion of citizenship on which it depends. Such exclusivity is in dramatic tension with the universalism of the world’s two largest religions, and with influential forms of liberalism.
How can an exclusive pledge of allegiance be justified? Does meaningful citizenship constitute a dereliction of duty to persons outside the political community?
The bond of citizenship, voluntarily entered or tacitly accepted, can be fruitfully compared to the bond of marriage. Both are exclusive and reciprocal, or else meaningless. When marriage partners “forsake all others,” they do not eschew moral duties to friends, acquaintances, or strangers, but make a unique commitment to a particular person and the family their union may produce. The marriage covenant is based on the recognition of physical, emotional, and mental limits. We cannot meaningfully love and serve all humanity, but we can make meaningful commitments to particular people in our lives.
For born citizens, the sibling relationship is perhaps a better analogy than marriage. We don’t choose our brothers or sisters any more than we choose our fellow citizens, but we are bound to them with unique ties of obligation and, hopefully, affection—obligations that, as any sibling knows, can occasionally strain our patience.
The Roman statesman-philosopher Cicero, a proponent of universal natural law based on our common humanity, insisted that the bond of citizenship—like that of family—does not preclude duties to the rest of humanity. Cicero in fact argued for welcoming foreigners into the city, though he did not favor granting them the privileges of citizenship. Duties owed to fellow countrymen, he argued, are different from and more extensive than duties to outsiders. Moral duties are most concentrated regarding those closest to us, our families and friends; as they extend in concentric circles to neighbors in the city, the country, and the world at large, they by no means dissipate. But they do relax: “Human society and fellowship will be best maintained,” wrote Cicero, “if where there is the most intimate relation, the greatest amount of kindness be bestowed.”
Beyond membership and reciprocity, further conditions apply to republican citizenship. The ideal of the res publica includes a high degree of participation on the part of its members. The republican citizen does not passively submit to imposed rule, but actively participates in constructing and maintaining the commonwealth—perhaps on an unequal footing, perhaps through representation, or even a monarchical leader or aristocratic body, but in any case not as a mere subject. In the republic, each citizen can appeal to laws that shield him from arbitrary rule, and each has a sense of ownership in the community.
We now approach the sturdy yeomanry envisioned by William Allen. This is a citizenry not dependent on the state—indeed, the state and the nation depend on it. Allen is concerned about sovereignty, not so much in terms of secure borders or territorial integrity, but in terms of the civic infrastructure—what he aptly calls the “fretwork” required to support “political prosperity.” But strengthening American citizenship means first strengthening the sense of citizenship as such, implying a reciprocal political relationship between its members, with a particular set of rights and duties.
Some 700,000 people swear the U.S. Naturalization Oath of Allegiance each year, but all citizens are either explicitly or implicitly committed to the duties outlined therein. To become a citizen of this country is to pledge “true faith and allegiance” to its Constitution and laws and—necessarily—to disavow all other political loyalties: to “entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty.”
As evidenced in the naturalization oath, American citizenship incorporates the basic notion of membership in a particular political community, the shouldering of duties related to the defense and maintenance of that community, and a republican devotion to the laws and the Constitution. By the same token, American citizens enjoy a robust suite of rights under the Constitution with deep, fibrous roots in the English common law, the theory of natural rights, and the Biblical notion of covenant.
All these issues are implicated in the debate on U.S. immigration policy. That debate, historically quite divisive, is no less divisive today, pitting the Trump administration and the government of my home state of Texas against other states like California. Not only that, major cities with large immigrant populations like Dallas and Houston and a number of border cities are lining up against the government in Austin.
The “Trumpist” position, ably laid out by Ramesh Ponnuru, is that immigration policy should be designed first and foremost to serve the interests of current citizens, suggesting strengthened borders and visa-restriction enforcement, reduction of low-skilled immigration to tighten the labor market, and more rigorous security screening.
To cast the issue in concrete terms: Should citizens, many of whom we do not know personally, matter more to us than non-citizens, be they students, workers, or families seeking opportunity? Hasn’t this nation historically been a welcoming country, as historian Bradley Birzer has argued, championing the liberation from arbitrary class divides, ethnic distinctions, and national origins—far from perfectly, but at least in the ideal—that civic membership in a political community can provide?
Let’s return to the family analogy. As a parent, what would you do if a man with whom you were not acquainted showed up and asked to live in your house? Even the most generous homesteader would want to know something about him. Where is he from? Is he employed? Does he have a criminal record? Do you have acquaintances in common who could serve as references? Why does he need to stay with you, and what kinds of accommodations will he need? What hours does he keep? Does he play the drums?
If he lacks employment prospects, or has a criminal record, any prudent person would be reluctant to grant the request. Extremes aside, a reasonable person would consider the impact on the family, available space, budget arrangements, and a number of other considerations. A generous person would find a way to make it work, even at some sacrifice, provided he or she foresaw no danger to or adverse consequences for the family. But declining the request would not necessarily be morally repugnant.
While the political community is not a family, similar considerations apply. What if the solicitous man in that example were injured, or fleeing danger, and lacked other options? This points to distinguishing between general immigration and residency policy, and refugee policy; national security concerns have to be weighed as well. The first duty of the government of a nation-state is to defend its territory and citizenry—analogous to its property and family members—from external threats and instability.
The basic argument for an immigration policy prioritizing those who are already citizens rests on this sort of analogy. The idea is that “we may owe something to our fellow Americans that we do not owe to foreigners, however deplorable some of the former and laudable some of the latter may be,” as Ponnuru wrote in a recent column endorsing “national allegiance.”
It’s not that our fellow citizens are better than or more worthy as human beings than non-citizens. It’s that we are engaged in a political relationship with fellow citizens, which entails a level and type of obligation beyond that due to members of other political communities.
One counterargument to the citizens-first approach that political theorist Joseph Carens has made is that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are contributing members in their respective communities, a point that is plausible and doubtless true for the majority of these individuals. That is essentially the claim of the mayors defending sanctuary city policies. Carens argues that illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for long periods of time have become de facto members of the political community and should receive recognition as such—even though they have not followed the procedures for residency or citizenship that the political community has set up. This logic, however, leads inevitably to a denial of citizens’ prerogative to establish immigration and residence policies at all—for if such policies were unjust to enforce, they could not have been just to enact.
There are broader counterarguments against the citizens-first immigration approach that comprehensively deny the right of the nation-state to control immigration. By what right may a nation do so? The question masks another, more fundamental one: by what right does a nation-state exist?
These questions turn on the very legitimacy of the political community. Let us consider two camps that challenge its legitimacy—two camps for whom, in essence, immigration policy simply is not debatable, since it falls under the purview of human rights.
A certain strain of classical liberal questions the legitimacy of the political community based on the premise that the state has a very specific and limited purpose, which is securing individuals’ ability to engage in voluntary intercourse. Any governmental action that infringes upon individual liberty, with the exception of minimal protections from fraud, coercion, or violence, is unjust in the view of such a classical liberal. According to this view, there is no political community, only individuals freely engaging in mutually agreed-upon exchange.
The Progressive liberal objection to that legitimacy is based on the noble but impractical ideal of the equality and brotherhood of all humanity, echoing Cicero’s insistence on duties derived from a universal natural law. National boundaries arbitrarily divide the human community, goes this argument. Boundaries perpetuate international inequality, war, and division—a claim with some basis in fact. Interestingly, as Kelefa Sanneh pointed out in the New Yorker, this Progressive objection is precisely that which politicians such as Bernie Sanders have sought to debunk, recognizing the social trust required to implement the Progressives’ social welfare policies.
To reject the legitimacy of the nation-state based on unrealized, possibly unrealizable, and certainly competing principles—whether maximum individual liberty or maximum equality—is to reject the actual form of common life that this country and others have achieved through generations of personal, civic, and military sacrifice based on a sense of membership and participation in a common life. It is to reject a hard-won, if relative, good in favor of a perfection that may never exist, and to fall prey to what political theorist Daniel J. Mahoney has aptly termed the “postpolitical temptation,” of a world without nations, available only in John Lennon’s imagination or in the life to come.
Yet, as William Allen is acutely aware, the plain old political temptation is very much with us as well, and has proved especially dangerous in the era of the nation-state. Excessive nationalism wrought devastation in the 20th century. Commenting immediately after the Great War on the intermingling of patriotic national identity with the State as an instrument of collective power and coercion, journalist Randolph Bourne famously wrote: “War is the health of the State.”
Conservatives like sociologist Robert Nisbet have long been ambivalent toward the national political community, because it has tended to subsume the traditional functions of primary groups like the family, church, trade guild, and neighborhood. Allen’s warning about the decline of genuine citizenship echoes this concern, and accords with Elshtain’s advocacy of a “chastened version of sovereignty” in which the power of the national state is limited, and that limitation affords the intermediary institutions of family, neighborhood, and church sufficient space in the political community—space in which to exercise their civic muscles and to shape the minds, hearts, and spirit of young citizens.
Communitarian thinkers, particularly those with religious commitments, have been obliged to reconcile their prioritization of these primary communities with national citizenship. Such a view, outlined by the political scientist Mark Amstutz, returns to the Ciceronian image of concentric circles, acknowledging that primary communities are embedded within larger political communities.
The national political community, under this view, is considered legitimate to the extent that it protects and supports primary communities. There remains an ever-present danger that the national political community will subsume primary communities’ functions, while simultaneously generating and worsening large-scale hostilities between peoples—but there is no clear alternative that does not threaten the goods it has secured.
In short, the political community is worth defending, as is the propriety of a nation-state’s elected representatives’ determining immigration policy in a manner designed to serve the security and economic interests of its citizens. That’s not a violation of human rights, but an affirmation of meaningful citizenship. For meaningful citizenship in a political community, beginning with commitments to those in our innermost circles, is an important “link in a series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind,” in the words of Edmund Burke.
The goal should be prioritizing the economic and security interests of current citizens, including naturalized citizens, while respecting the humanity of legal residents and non-citizens. We can thus imagine a “chastened citizenship”—corresponding to a chastened version of sovereignty—that best accords with the respect due to each human person.
 See Chapter 7 of Nisbet’s The Quest for Community (ISI Books, 2010).