Readers Respond to "Citizenship for Sale?"

Published: October 24, 2008
Chicago Booth Magazine Spring 2008

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The Impact on Expats

I found the proposal of Gary Becker, Kevin Murphy, and Robert Topel ("Citizenship for Sale," Spring 2008) a wonderful example of the kind of lateral, outrageous, but fundamentally sound thinking that makes one proud to be a GSB graduate.

They ignored one consequence of making U.S. citizenship a saleable product and that has to do with U.S. expatriates. I am one of those, and have been for 26 of the past 30 years. We tend to fall between the cracks in terms of taxation and representation, and all of us could go on ad infinitum regarding the various trials and tribulations that result from our status.

But I refer to the market for expatriate citizenship that would boom as a result of the professors' proposal. For a pittance (the cost of a couple of weeks at Claridge's in London?), a banker in the City could acquire a little blue book without actually having to live in the U.S. As far as I know, U.S. citizenship does not oblige you to reside in the U.S.

If that is the case, then what a marvelous insurance policy! It would certainly be great to be able to go down to the local U.S. embassy and wave that little blue book at the gate when things get rough and the helicopters land on the roof.

So there is an entirely separate sub-segment that is worth exploring, if only in the interest of maximizing the idea's immediate revenue-generating potential. May I suggest also considering different tiers of citizenship —
say, blue, gold, and platinum — with different rights and obligations and different price structures? Blue would allow you to enter into and reside in the United States on your own, but to bring a family member with you would require gold status, and so forth.

Once you get going, it only makes sense to pursue the idea to its logical conclusion. Looking at the matter from the expatriate's perspective puts it all in a somewhat different light.

Ned Wiley, AB '72, MBA '74
Berlin, Germany


A Shortsighted Proposal

Professor Becker's proposal to sell citizenship is shortsighted in the extreme. There are two kinds of men and women who leave their homes in one country and resettle in another nation: immigrants and colonists. The distinction could not be sharper. We desire immigrants but we do not welcome colonists. If America sold citizenship, the new citizens would naturally assume that we were selling the country to them — "them" as a group — and that they were becoming the new owners; that is to say, they would be colonists — the new owners of the country. We want immigrants who come here to participate in our country, not to run it or change it into their country.

Joel Gibbons, MBA '76, PhD '79
St. Joseph, Michigan


Let the Free Market Work

I've always regarded the University of Chicago as a bastion of free-market solutions. Why not follow this tradition and create a citizenship market with government oversight?
There are currently persons in this country who place little value on citizenship and demand reparations based on how their ancestors got here. Why not allow these people to sell their citizenship, then repatriate them to a country that would accept them? That is, reparations with repatriation.

This system could operate similarly to the home mortgage market with certain obvious restrictions, such as that all dependents would also sell their citizenship at the same time with no right to return. Additionally, those entering would be screened, as potential home buyers are. Those leaving also would be screened to make certain of their identities and right to sell the intangible asset. Thus the free market would set the selling price.

Persons entering this country could get loans from banks similar to those sold in the home mortgage market. Some could even be partially seller-financed by those most anxious to return to their roots.

One other set of caveats: The person leaving would need to first settle all debts-both civil and criminal-and give up all benefits accruing to citizens (examples: Social Security, SSI, Medicaid). The benefits of citizenship would accrue to the new citizen.

Why not let the free market work?

Barry Weinshenker, '70
Louisville, Kentucky


Ethical Implications of Citizenship Debt

I don't think it is a good idea to charge money for immigration. The biggest fear I have with this kind of system would be that immigrants who pay $50,000 may find illegal, unethical, or wrong ways of making money in the country-a bad sign for a country like the United States, which is popular for being one of the most ethical societies in the world.

Vipul Goel
Maple Grove, Minnesota


Selling Citizenship Merits Further Discussion

It is quite clear that "Citizenship For Sale?" merely opens a discussion without reaching final recommendations. That being the case, a number of issues can be raised which might be worth further discussion.

First, professors Gary Becker, Kevin Murphy, and Robert Topel advocate a lower price for those already here compared with those who are outside the country and wish to purchase citizenship, stating that such a system says, "We want you here; it is not a punishment for being here." Presumably, the comparatively favorable price is levied for illegal immigrants. That, precisely, is the issue. They are being rewarded for having broken the law in the past. If all the illegals were caught and deported-theoretically but not practically possible-then they would be charged the same price as those outside the United States. Should they not have to pay extra to avoid being deported? And shouldn't they have to pay some additional amount for having incurred the benefits of living here? That argues they should pay more than those who are outside the country. What about the children of illegals born here, who are granted citizenship by virtue of the locale of their birth? If the mother is illegal, shouldn't the child also be so classified? Should an illegal minor have to pay the same rate as an illegal adult? Should English language competence be a prerequisite?

Second, there is little mention of how many new citizens can be absorbed, or whether some structure should be put in place to guarantee that the number who pay can be absorbed as productive citizens. Should purchased citizenship qualify one for all benefits, including access to the welfare system? If one purchases citizenship and fails to be productive, should the money be refunded or forfeited followed by deportation? Perhaps some of these issues could be addressed if the labor department or some new agency were to specify the number of jobs available at various skill levels and thus restrict the number of places available for sale. That raises another question: Would it be first come, first served, or would a quota system for various countries be established? Suppose Spain adopts a system like the one Becker proposes and its price is two-thirds the American price. Could a Spaniard "trade in" his citizenship and become an American for one-third the American price, plus one Spanish citizenship, which the United States could resell, perhaps?

Another issue, surprisingly not discussed by Becker, Murphy, and Topel, is why the price should not be determined by auction. If the number of slots available is fixed for the year, either a regular or a Dutch auction format would work. As the number of available places diminishes, the price would probably increase. Thus, the market would determine the price. (What a concept! Even GSBers might recognize the value of such a solution.)

Finally, great thought should be given to what selling citizenship-and being the only country in the world to do so-would do to the philosophical underpinnings of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. How would that affect the lives of current citizens? Could they sell their citizenship to aliens and emigrate? If they remained here, would they become illegals? They couldn't be classified as immigrants, so a new definition of illegal persons living here would have to be developed. One of the effects of any such policy would require a change in the Statue of Liberty engraving: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," to "Give me your tired, your semi-rich, your huddled ..."

Selwyn Becker
Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Quality Management, Chicago Booth

Last Updated 5/14/09