On Eduardo Saverin.

What does it mean to “owe” something to “The United States”? This question, prima facie, appears to have deep deep implications. Yet you wouldn’t know if if you read the majority of media opinion on Eduardo Saverin.

With his first straw man sentence, Bruce Ackerman sets up an entire stream of wrong-headed thought:

Is citizenship a commodity, to be bought and sold when the price is right?

This is the kind of poor thinking that many otherwise sophisticated individuals have exhibited when commenting on Eduardo Saverin’s decision to forgo his citizenship. I happen to believe one can and should think of citizenship in market-like terms, and I will explain why later, but no one (especially Saverin) is even suggesting what Ackerman opens with. Ironically, Ackerman seems to think there’s something abhorrent about a market in citizenship even as he uses cost as a stick with which to abuse would-be renouncers. He starts with an appeal to nationalism.

This dynamic creates a dilemma in national self-definition. We should not close our doors to thousands of entrepreneurs yearning to realize the American dream. This is, after all, the land of opportunity. But citizenship is more than an ordinary market transaction. It is a personal commitment to the nation and its welfare. This core principle is threatened when relative newcomers, along with some native sons, follow Saverin to the exits in search of tax havens.

So what’s Ackerman’s solution? Raise the *cost* of “selling” one’s citizenship back.

Nevertheless, the right to repudiate can now be exercised at too low a price. At present, Saverin and his followers can renounce the U.S. and then return at will on short-term visas as tourists or business travelers. So long as they can flit in and out, they will enjoy many of the benefits of citizenship while evading their fair share of federal and state taxes.

I’m not trying to beat up on Ackerman myself, but I am rather trying to expose the inconsistency in the position taken by many conservatives, and disappointingly, liberals. Agents of the state cannot be blamed for manipulating this minor controversy to support increasing the state’s claims on citizens, but it’s a shame that opinionmakers, especially in media, are so complicit in this kind of poisonous nationalistic catharsis.

The Wall Street Journal is a little more congenial to my position, in a backhanded way:

Not that we have any sympathy for Mr. Saverin, whose citizenship decision is a remarkable act of ingratitude toward the country that welcomed him as a child from Brazil. America’s rule of law and relatively open markets have allowed him to take $30,000 in savings and turn it into Facebook shares that after Friday may be worth more than $2 billion. For anyone who saw his portrayal in “The Social Network,” his citizenship choice plays to sad type.

This intrigues me, but I don’t think I’m convinced that our rule of law and markets mean that Saverin should be grateful to “America.” Saying this country welcomed him is a stupid cliche and really means nothing in the real world. I think he should maybe be grateful to a handful of VCs. Accepting an enormous tax burden is a high bar to set for exhibiting gratitude, and the logic of the WSJ suggests that anyone who did well in America is stuck here lest they be rude. At least they note at the end that the decision to leave says something about America’s competitiveness.

On the other end of the debate, Reihan Salam offers a reasoned analysis for why our public policy orientation toward expats is pragmatically bad. He makes a good case that we want an outward orientation because even if we’re not collecting tax revenue from Americans abroad, they are engaged with a much wider array of experience that can be translated into innovation in the home country. But really, there’s this:

Think about it. The United States has been greatly enriched by migrants from countries like the Philippines, France, and India, who were educated at great expense in those countries yet who’ve come to our country to make their way in the world. These countries do no vindictively tax those who emigrate or declare them traitors, at least not now. Countries like India used to take that approach, yet they eventually realized that this was profoundly foolish — that moving to opportunity was in many respects a good and noble thing that could benefit the home country and the world. Wouldn’t it be strange if the Italian government in 1905 decided to tax the Sicilian immigrant who left Italy behind to make good in the rag trade in New York city?

Understandably, we’re used in this country to being the place that anyone who is anyone wants to be. And for good reason. That’s decreasingly the case though, and is irrelevant to the fact that the double standard is glaring and absurd. Our immigration policy is far too restrictive, especially for highly skilled workers, but we’re damn glad to have them when they get here and do amazing things. Bruce Ackerman isn’t saying that innovative immigrants owe a monetary or moral debt to their home countries. You can be sure there would be outrage if India or China came down on individuals seeking to renounce citizenship and emmigrate. One might expect a plausible manifestation of this scenario to involve human rights rather than taxes. The real question though is whether one can justifiably draw lines in the sand or whether the real issue is a fundamental right to self-determination. Obviously I come down on behalf of the latter. And most “patriotic” Americans fervently defend the right to renounce citizenship because of taxes every year on July 4th anyway.

Now, I noted earlier that I actually support viewing citizenship like a market — but not quite like Ackerman paints it. National boundaries are arbitrary and largely the result of state-sanctioned and orchestrated slaughter. But they contain political regimes of varying degrees of desirability across an array of measures. In this country, our nationalism and xenophobia pairs with our generally pro-market culture to produce this strange bias of anti-labor mobility and pro-capital mobility (free trade). Citizenship is essential to the anti-labor piece of the puzzle, although we usually discuss it with respect to low- and sometimes high-skilled immigrants rather than emigrants. From the standpoint of the kind of deeply libertarian political economy I support, I am enticed by the idea of lowing all but geographic barriers to citizenship. In practice this is impossible, but they could certainly be much lower, which would stimulate much more competitiveness among governments that I would find quite desirable for more than the obvious opportunity it presents to get Tom Friedman to finally leave for China for good. Obviously most people are tied to their nation of origin and have emotional bonds, but on the margin a fair number of people could be persuaded to take their civic business elsewhere. I would thus add this to the pragmatic case for not hating emigrants.

What I’m particularly interested in though is a deeper question about what kind of duties and obligations individuals have to the “state” regarding citizenship. In my readings this has been touched on best by A. John Simmons in Moral Principles and Political ObligationsIt’s a fascinating survey of Western conceptions of duty and obligation. Disclaimer: Simmons is a philosophical anarchist, so one ought to expect a vigorous anti-statist stance from him anyway. That doesn’t mean compelling accounts are free to ignore him, obviously.

One of the insights of the work is that the “duties of citizenship” are what Simmons calls “positional duties.” By being citizens, we are obliged to perform certain functions. That ought not to be taken to mean that we have a moral requirement. The mere existence of an institution cannot be taken to justify this alone. After all, there are plenty of institutional regimes which are unjust and we certainly wouldn’t tell someone they are morally required to obey it because they are born there, even if they are obliged to obey. This is reasonable. This is also important when thinking about the accusation being leveled against Saverin that he owes something to the United States.

This statement comes in two parts.

As I see this, one part is that Saverin has a moral bond with the state through his citizenship. This doesn’t seem right vis-a-vis the above because it seems to suggest that merely by being a citizen one is morally bound, as proposed legislation to remedy this apparent problem is broadly tailored and appears not to account for substantive justification of moral obligation. The logic being forwarded is that Saverin has so obviously gotten so much out of his citizenship, that he should be so grateful for it, he must be punished for forgoing it. The fact of the matter is that Saverin could have made his riches without being a citizen, and maybe would have if we had a more just immigration regime to begin with. Really, the question of whether Saverin is morally bound to the state or bound to be merely grateful are two distinct questions. I don’t think there is a compelling case for either, but Saverin has said (genuinely or not) that he was glad for the time he was citizen.

Yet even if one were to establish that Saverin owed something to the United States by being here — that is, established a strong particularist case for why his positional duties were accompanied by moral duty — it is also necessary to establish a compelling case for limiting consent. This is something I absolutely cannot abide by. Since Locke, the idea of the consent of the governed has been central to Western philosophy and is deeply ingrained in the American foundational myth. Consent has all kinds of problems because you can’t actually ask everyone if they agree to the political institutions they are living under (and why would the status quo want to?), but surely we are pissing on the concept by demonizing and financially penalizing people who want to leave. It is already extremely prohibitive for most people to leave the nation and emigrate, which is one reason why mostly rich people do it now. If we believe in consent, then passing legislation that makes it costly to renounce citizenship and ensures life-long de facto and de jure persecution by many of the nation’s institutions makes us a less just regime. Period.

Salam rightly notes that there are a number of reasons for Saverin to prefer Singapore to the United States. He was never deeply attached to this place, Singapore isn’t going to tax his capital gains, and Singapore has an efficient public sector relative to the United States. If Saverin is ok with the drawbacks of living in Singapore, I can’t think of a conception of justice that suggests he should be coerced into staying here anyway. Surely empty rhetoric such as “you owe us!” can’t count. I myself don’t like to chew gum and eschew nationalism — maybe Singapore is for me, too.

To sum it up: I expect the state to impulsively act to extract wealth from individuals and to seek to prevent them from absolving their civic obligations, or at least exploit their doing so for political gain. The glaringly obvious perverse incentive which gives rise to this gives me pause before simply siding with the pols. I wish our thinkers in the media would do the same.


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