Why Democracy? Why Citizenship?

We really need to think about whether our justification for democratic citizenship is its ability to address the economic problem of resource distribution ‘better’ than other regimes.

SPIEGEL: Does the fact that “guided democracies” like Russia or China are currently more successful in economic terms undermine the attractiveness of Western-style democracy? Is that a new model that is becoming attractive for young people?

Kissinger: The problem of guided democracies is that they have great difficulties solving the problem of succession and of giving access to the widest possible pool of talent. China has come closer to solving that problem than any other undemocratic system. I believe that the democratic model is better and more durable for the future but not automatically. It depends on our vision and determination.

I’m thinking about this because Will Wilkinson recently urged me to consider exactly what was so great about polities and citizenship…

To wit:

Can you please say something about why citizenship as you construe it is so valuable for people according to some broadly shared notion of value, and not just according to your personal pet theory of what makes life meaningful? That way, it would be possible to have a productive debate. And I’d like to believe that citizenship (and the word “polity”) is not just a personal fetish of yours, but I don’t.

Wealth is good for people in terms of health, longevity, life-satisfaction, education, etc. I can prove it. […] Your disdain for those communities and the people who live in them reflects very poorly on you, my friend, and very much illustrates what concerns me about citizenship fetishism: it practically encourages you to dehumanize people with other passports.

The communities in question — I may as well name some of them: Vallejo, Richmond, Stockton, Bakersfield, Imperial Beach, and that’s to say nothing of Arizona — are pretty wretched, and would indeed benefit from a greater influx of libertarians, versus illegal immigrants, but that’s another meme for another day. I don’t need to be proven that wealth makes people’s — and peoples’ — lives better, on balance, at least. I’ll stipulate away on that count. My claim is that citizenship is a different kind of good than economic goods. But Will is right that I haven’t done a really adequate job of accounting for why. Part of this is because I hope that most people still don’t start their mental debates resolved that citizenship has no inherent worth. But part of it is because I think the libertarians have the inertia of the future on their side (read: big business) and any defense of citizenship isn’t good enough today if it only registers with people who have already been educated or habituated into its worth. If you’re wondering whether this means that citizenship might require a postmodern conservative apology, then, yes, I suspect it does, but unfortunately I don’t have the time to tease that out right now, much less think it through.

But one piece of the puzzle that does seem central and not parochial is this idea that democratic citizenship, which is supposedly its best version, has got to have the worth it does for reasons not limited to the economic productivity and vitality unleashed by democratic living. Now neither Russia nor China are about to grant Mobility Rights to any class of foreigners anytime soon, but that points to the way that mobility rights talk relies on this parallel moral and economic justification which ultimately fuses morality and economy into a single metric of judgment. The Rawlsickian position seems to be that if China, for example, did grant total mobility rights, the rest would soon more or less take care of itself — which is why you get political scientists like Alex Wendt doing some heavy breathing in their footnotes about how it’s more important for regimes to be ‘decent’ than for them to be, y’know, democracies. So tolls the bell for citizenship.

It’s right not to read citizenship as important only insofar as it’s ‘democratic’. But libertarians are making the gamble of a lifetime if they think the way for the US to generate better living through economics involves throwing open its borders to great herds of migratory humans while China and Russia work diligently toward better living through the pink police state. The Spiegel interviewer is right that this is a model becoming ‘attractive’ to young people, precisely because it offers all the pleasurable economic goods associated with western politics without any of the egalitarian religious and philosophical baggage that hobbles Europe and America with such inefficient anxieties. And Kissinger is right that somehow ‘we’ need to present a super-powerful argument as to why citizenship — and not merely the pleasures and benefits of material goods — is of intrinsic worth. I submit that so far ‘we’ are failing. This may excite libertarians, but it gives me the fear. Yet I recognize that the challenge they pose cannot simply be brushed off as another bout of optimistic utopianism. For the purposes of this blog post, that aporia will have to stand, but for any other purposes, it mustn’t.