The vast majority of the global population acquires citizenship purely by accidental circumstances of birth. There is little doubt that securing membership status in a given state bequeaths to some a world filled with opportunity and condemns others to a life with little hope. Gaining privileges by such arbitrary criteria as one’s birthplace is discredited in virtually all fields of public life, yet birthright entitlements still dominate our laws when it comes to allotting membership in a state.
In The Birthright Lottery, Ayelet Shachar argues that birthright citizenship in an affluent society can be thought of as a form of property inheritance: that is, a valuable entitlement transmitted by law to a restricted group of recipients under conditions that perpetuate the transfer of this prerogative to their heirs. She deploys this fresh perspective to establish that nations need to expand their membership boundaries beyond outdated notions of blood-and-soil in sculpting the body politic. Located at the intersection of law, economics, and political philosophy, The Birthright Lottery further advocates redistributional obligations on those benefiting from the inheritance of membership, with the aim of ameliorating its most glaring opportunity inequalities.
OK, you were lucky enough to be born in one of the wealthier countries of the world. But what makes you entitled to enjoy the benefits of this accident of birth while others in poorer countries are starving to death through no fault of their own? Ayelet Shachar argues that the privileges of hereditary entitlement to citizenship may be legitimate, but so too are the claims to citizenship of those born elsewhere who have developed bonds of community involvement. Birthright citizenship is a special kind of inherited property, and a society has a right to impose restrictions and qualifications on what rights flow from the chance occurrence of ‘being born here.’ This book is an important jumping-off point not only for the immigrant rights movement, but also for all of us who would like to see the eventual dismantling of restriction on immigration, or even of all national boundaries.
Shachar’s fundamental insight is to suggest treating the material benefits of citizenship as a form of property. That recasts citizenship as an inheritance…that ought to be taxed… For those who would argue that it is repellent to pay for your birthright—a sort of head tax in reverse—Shachar attacks the notion that citizenship is a natural right. How, she asks, could anything based on the artificial construct of national borders be natural? A child born in one spot has a chance in the Dominican Republic. If she’s born a few feet the other way, she’s trapped for life in the desolation of Haiti… For those living comfortably on the socially conscious left, Shachar has raised the bar on the discussion of equality.
So universal is birthright citizenship as a legal norm—and so comfortably does it sit with our own interests—that this extraordinary and unjust system of allotting life chances passes unquestioned. If it did nothing else but open our eyes to this anomaly, this book would make a signal contribution to the immigration debate… Shachar makes an effective and impassioned case that we cannot avert our eyes from the injustice of current immigration law and the unearned privilege it confers upon the native-born majority. It is not sufficient justification that it pleases us.
The Birthright Lottery is a timely and relevant contribution to the modern theory and practice of citizenship. It will be of interest to scholars of citizenship and those new to the subject. By situating the discussion in the rich context of literature on citizenship theory, borders, migration, and global inequality, the book provides an excellent introduction to existing discourse. Those already familiar with these topics will find the author’s novel perspective on citizenship and her creative proposals for change both refreshing and stimulating. Indeed, the value of this book lies not only in its important contribution to citizenship theory, but also in its explosive power to spark new debates and inspire innovative work in this area.
An original, learned, and ambitious book. The Birthright Lottery will make a significant contribution to the fields of immigration and citizenship studies and to studies across the disciplines on global justice.
An exceptionally important work from one of the leading theorists of citizenship law. Shachar is the first scholar to put the rich theory of property law to work in the realm of citizenship. Taken on its premise, it is a highly successful effort. Citizenship theory is ripe for destabilization, and The Birthright Lottery delivers on its promise to shake up our thinking on the question.
Prepare to be challenged, at times even outraged, but always stimulated. This book is for the intellectually brave.
The Birthright Lottery provides us with a strikingly novel way of thinking of the intergenerational reproduction of global inequality. It has the potential to redefine completely the terms in which debates about global justice are conducted.
- 290 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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