Friday, 22 August 2014

Externalities of Citizenship

The gruesome murder of James Foley earlier this week revealed a problem with citizenship: Groups and individuals who have a problem with certain governments will attack citizens sharing a demonym with those governments. As far as I have understood, the executioner said that the deed was done as revenge for an air strike ordered by POTUS on Islamic State-controlled areas. Maybe their behaviour would be just as nasty even in the absence of the air strike, but in the absence of citizenship, vengeance would be far more costly.
The point with citizenship is to grant certain legal rights to their holders which they would not have if were they not in possession of the citizenship. When individuals are picked for punishment or reward on the basis of their citizenship, they experience external costs and benefits from it. I have heard of people getting out of parking tickets because of their car's numberplates. Naturally, an individual will tend to want external benefits, but to achieve that requires him to successfully alter policy in a way which will bring about this result. It is plain that this is beyond the capacity of the common man, perhaps even of the "great men".
Thus, citizens will not do much to boost the value of their citizenship. What happened to James Foley attests to that; there is hardly an American who wanted him killed, but to influence Washington to make perceptions of America more favourable overseas is, for the individual, like trying to make two and two equal five. The elimination of citizenship is of course extremely unlikely to happen. This blog post merely identifies a thinkable solution to the nasty events of late, not a likely one. Perhaps a market for citizenship would be an improvement. Journalists like Mr Foley would sell their American citizenship and buy one which causes less offence in the region where they work. However, the ties to the US government would remain in the form of friends and relatives who are US citizens and will pressure Washington to work to spare the lives of the captureds. The militants respond to the presence of these ties.
I suppose in the absence of citizenship, "nationality" or maybe residency may also serve the same purpose, so what would really solve the problem would be the elimination of government. Of course, not many people would be willing to go that far. But the present association of individuals with governments and the infinitesimal incentives to boost the value of a citizenship nevertheless does a great deal of damage. Acts of violence tend to cause more aggression in retaliation rather than less, probably in some part due to the lack of incentive for the individual to opt for good government. Therefore, the murder of James Foley was likely carried out because more air strikes or other retaliation will whip up support for IS, whose leaders expect it to be worth more than the added risk to their lives.

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