Justice, Passport Lotteries, Liberal Population Sinks, etc.

Some embryonic thoughts on justice, citizenship, and the distribution of passports…

Political philosophers sometimes completely confuse justice for something else, like some kind of disposition of stuff among people. It’s confusing and confused when they talk about “distribution” because it evokes the idea that all this stuff is just out there and that the fundamental institutions and rules of game (the “basic structure”) somehow distribute the preexisting stuff in this way or that. If the distribution isn’t fair, then someone can just redistribute it until it is fair.

This is, of course, massively confused. The deep objection to this way of thinking is that different basic structures don’t so much determine how stuff is distributed, but determine whether or not there is stuff at all, and how much. You don’t need to justify to anyone why they have less than someone else; you have to justify to them why they have less than their counterpart in some feasible, alternative set of institutions. Because wealth is created and not just moved around, and more wealth is created under certain institutional schemes than others, the question isn’t so much one of distribution as production or creation. The question of whether people live under institutions in which they can realize their capacities and reliably acquire the necessary means to successfully enact their life-plans is mainly a question of what might be called productive justice.  One of the things a morally legitimate government ensures are the institutions of production that make the achievement of good lives possible and even probable. People are owed such institutions — they have ’em coming — in virtue of being people.

Maddeningly, most people on Earth don’t have these institutions — the institutions of liberal capitalism. This isn’t primarily the fault of the rich people who do have them; it is a pathetically common form of intellectual deformation to think other people are poor because we are rich. It is primarily the fault of political elites who control poor countries for failing to set up and secure the institutions of productive justice. One thing the citizens of rich countries owe the world’s poor people is to not give money to the corrupt elites that rule them.

Anyway, corrupt rulers aside, what the world’s less fortunate most need isn’t a chunk of our wealth, but the capacity to produce their own. There are two ways to achieve this. First, install liberal capitalism where the people are. Second, let the people come to where liberal capitalism is.

Strangely, there appears to be next to nothing in the mainstream political philosophy literature (though maybe I’m missing something), that drives home the arbitrary distribution of citizenship. It’s funny, because citizenship, unlike wealth, can be created out of thin air, and is distributed according to a few largely arbitrary principles.

So here’s my idea. Individuals and families in countries below a certain threshold of average wealth can register at the Embassies of, say, OECD countries to take part in a citizenship lottery. Each of the participating countries pledges to create a certain number of new citizenships (say 1/2 percent of their current population per year — in the U.S. that would be 1.5 million). The lottery randomly picks individual/families and randomly assigns them to passports. You don’t have to move anywhere. You’re now just a family of Zimbabweans who are also Dutch citizens. Now, I don’t think this is politically feasible, but it makes more sense than Pogge’s “global resources dividend,” which completely misunderstands the nature of the problem.

Another possibility: coalitions of successful liberal capitalist countries simply buy huge chunks of territory from illiberal leaders, and start new countries in each major geographic region. Current residents get double citizenship, and all property claims are formalized. Set up liberal institutions through a kind of multilateral colonial rule.  Start handing out a regulated flow of passports to people from around the region, which can ramp up in numbers as the economic institutions are entrenched, and democratic institutions are developed. The idea is to both secure rights and justice for people who wouldn’t otherwise enjoy them, while at the same time creating regional population drain in a way that stimulates jurisdictional competition, increasing the probability that nearby nations will finally get around to implementing the institutions of justice.

Less dramatically, we should plump for ever-broadening common regional labor markets that allow people to cross borders to work in nations with better institutions and opportunities than they have in their home countries.

Why isn’t there more discussion and development of ideas like these? Could be that they’re idiotic ideas. But my guess is that if you’re obsessed with the idea that justice primarily concerns the disposition of material holdings among everyone who happens to have a passport issued by the same jurisdictional public goods provider (Basic Income Grants now!), then you’re not going to welcome the added complexity that comes from justifying not giving passports to people who would benefit massively from them. Or something like that…

Anyway, the general question: If handing out new passports doesn’t cost those of us who already have them anything (on average), then shouldn’t we, as a matter of justice, give out as many as we can until it does cost us? Shouldn’t we think a lot harder about where that limit is?

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