Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneAgainst Citizenship
Posted at 5:52 pm on September 26, 2010, by John W. Payne

Many conservatives have been kicking up a fuss over birthright citizenship, which automatically makes any child born on American soil an American citizen regardless of whether the child’s parents are American citizens. These conservatives complain that so-called “anchor babies” allow immigrants stay in the country illegally and take jobs from “real” Americans. I agree that these children did nothing to deserve American citizenship, but I find the conservatives’ selectivity repugnant. After all, the children of American citizens did nothing to deserve their citizenship either.

So here’s what I propose: no one should get American citizenship at birth. Everyone in America, citizen or not, should still have all the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but if someone wants to vote or run for public office, it is completely reasonable to demand that they have a working knowledge of American government. When an immigrant seeks naturalized citizenship, he has to take a test that covers American history and civics–vital information for being an informed participant in the democratic process–and I fail to see, at least in principle, why we shouldn’t all potential voters to pass the same test.

Pundits constantly bemoan the fact that the electorate is uninformed or, even worse, misinformed. This would remedy that problem to some degree and could very well lead to better policy outcomes. In The Myth of the Rational Voter, which I discussed in my last post, Bryan Caplan shows that the informed public is far more likely to agree with economists on issues like free trade and immigration (i.e. more supportive of both) than the general public. I’m under no illusion that restricting the franchise to the informed would usher in my libertarian utopia, but it might lead to fewer obviously stupid policies like protective tariffs.

My one reservation about this plan is that there would be an incentive for a powerful interest group to game the test and systematically exclude certain sets of people, and I think that’s worrisome enough that I’m not adamantly in favor of implementing such a system. Nonetheless, in principle I think the idea is sound. Democracy should not be an end in itself. It is only good if it produces good policies, and there are numerous (and mostly obvious) reasons to think that an informed public would vote for better policies than the ones we currently live under. It would be nice if all Americans were well informed about our government and public policy, but that’s never going to happen–the incentives just aren’t there–so why not limit the electorate to those who actually care enough to know what they are doing when they vote?

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

Filed under: Public Choice
Comments: 5 Comments


  1. The problem with that idea is that it’s only sound if you overlook that one reservation. In practice, it would never work, for exactly that reason. Sooner or later, someone would turn up with a motivation and an opportunity to game the system.

    Comment by David Oftedal — 2010-09-27 @ 3:26 pm

  2. And come to think of it, the entire premise of denying uninformed people the right to take part in decision-making goes against the principle of individual freedom to begin with. A tempting thought, but highly problematic.

    Comment by David Oftedal — 2010-09-27 @ 4:05 pm

  3. I fail to see how it violates individual liberty. Voting is not a fundamental right like freedom of speech or religion, which is why it is so easy to revoke–just ask most felons. You could argue that the voters would use the government to oppress non-voters, and that would violate individual liberties. But restricting the franchise in and of itself is no restriction on liberty.

    Comment by John Payne — 2010-09-27 @ 4:51 pm

  4. Hm yes, so not a direct violation, but a very, very slippery slope.

    Comment by David Oftedal — 2010-09-27 @ 5:01 pm

  5. This idea is very naive. Obviously the specific questions of the test would either be completely bogged down in controversy forever, or the same interest groups that dominate the election process now, would ensure the “right” demographics get over-represented.
    I also dispute the premise that mundane civics knowledge correlates with good policy selection. Remember questions from the driver’s test? Things like:
    “When disabled on the side of the road, you should place flares _____ feet behind your vehicle.”
    a) 10
    b) 50
    c) 100
    d) 500


    A bureaucratized voter test will just be an arbitrary barrier to those unwilling to memorize trivia. This COULD have good results if it just meant casual voters stayed home. But then your point is disingenuous, because a poll tax would accomplish the same thing. Just say: I want it to be hard to vote, so apathetic people will be disincentivized.

    There’s no specific knowledge necessary, just willingness to spend non-zero time/money to express preference.

    Comment by vroman — 2010-10-08 @ 5:51 pm

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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