The Foundational Premise Of Citizenship
For a variety of reasons, questions related to the concept of citizenship have recently become a matter of debate on a much more frequent basis. This essay is not designed to address any particular question, issue, or individual, but rather to take a look at what the original concept entailed, and how the original relationship has evolved into the concept as we understand it today. The point to the article is not to necessarily advocate for a particular point of view, rather it is to provide an opportunity to look at citizenship from a different perspective.
We begin by differentiating between the terms “subject” and “citizen”. For the purposes of this discussion, the essential difference lies in the “citizen’s” legally recognized and/or sanctioned input into the political process. A “subject” is recognized as being under the dominion of the governing body, whether that governing body is comprised of a tribal leader, a King, or any other form of government. This would place the voters of the United States into the category of “citizens”, while placing the non-voting members of the society into the category of “subjects”. These definitions are provided to ensure consistency and clarity in the mind of the reader as to the principles which I am attempting to address.
The historical premise, in my view, which underlies the granting of citizenship to any particular individual, lies in the perception that the individual in question has done something to deserve it, or, at the very least, will be expected to do so in the future. If we look at a very basic form of government, the tribal council, we can see how this convention was observed. The most common form of tribal councils was generally composed of men over a certain age all of whom were expected to protect and provide for the community at large. The underlying principle being that those who were fully invested in the community, to the point they were willing to sacrifice life and limb, as well as property, in its service, “deserved” a seat at the table. In other words, if you were expected to be a warrior under the mores of the society, you expected a certain degree of input into the decision making process in return. To put it more succinctly; you paid, you played.
The “you pay/you play” contract can be seen throughout history and has always been the premise on which the dis-enfranchised have attempted to join the enfranchised. One can hardly find a movement which did not implicitly, if not explicitly, suggest that their contributions required the granting of power in return. Tribal warlords asserted their rights on this premise. The aristocracy of various countries asserted their rights on this premise. The mercantile class asserted their rights on this premise. The Greeks, the Romans, the Muslims, the African-Americans, the Woman’s Movement, and so many other groups, all rested their argument on the fact that if they were contributing members of the society they deserved representation at the highest levels of power. It was an unwritten rule, but one applied nonetheless on numerous occasions, that contributors deserved a voice.
The Founding Fathers of the United States recognized the aforementioned rule when authoring and ratifying the Constitution. They recognized the historical fact that any society which enfranchised those who did not meet the criteria was doomed to failure, as the effect would be for the less invested group to vote to themselves the proceeds of the more invested group. I would suggest that we are seeing those predictable results in the United States of today.
Before anyone suggests that my critique is aimed solely at the poor, the weak, and the needy, let me give you an example of where that isn’t so. My critique is also aimed at those who advocate war, or other such actions, without being personally liable on the battle field. In Ancient Greece, for example, every male of age was expected to be of service in times of war, and thus a vote for war had personal as well as national consequences. It was in recognition of this “contract” between each individual citizen and the society of his allegiance that the Founding Fathers made their views quite clear on the maintenance of a standing army. The absence of a standing army meant that a vote for war was also recognition that you, or someone you loved, would be a participant in the conflict. The absence of a standing army meant that the individual citizen was always seen to be one call away from being a part of a citizen’s army. It also meant that the army and the citizenry were one, and that an elite governing coalition supported by an army separate and apart from the people could never hope to overcome the force of the people themselves.
On the other hand, the Founding Fathers also took aggressive action against what they saw to be the other side of the equation. This was under the understanding that human nature would compel the people to attempt to receive more benefits from the government than they had originally invested. In an attempt to subvert this result, they opted for limited government with limited largesse on the part of that government, and implemented a system where those areas most relevant to the people were most closely influenced by them. This was meant to ensure that the people had firsthand knowledge of the people, the issues, the costs, and any other relevant factors which might impact on the decision making process. Obviously, we have also failed to respect this concept as well.
There is much else to be said on the subject, but in the interest of time and space I end my little essay here, and thank those who took the time to read it, and consider the thoughts I presented.