The Worth of Citizenship in an Unequal World

Ayelet Shachar


In today’s world, one’s place of birth and one’s parentage are — by law — relevant to, and often conclusive of, one’s access to membership in a particular political community. Birthright citizenship largely shapes the allocation of membership entitlement itself (the "gate-keeping" or demos-demarcation function of citizenship). But no less significantly, it also distributes opportunity unequally (the "wealthpreserving" function of citizenship). This makes citizenship a matter of inherited entitlement. In a world in which membership in different political communities translates into very different starting points in life, upholding this legal connection between birth, political membership, and life opportunities raises important questions of distributive justice. These questions are particularly pressing given that the vast majority of the world’s population — 97 out of every 100 people — acquire political membership via circumstances beyond their control, that is, according to where and to whom they were born. While we find vibrant debates in the literature about the legitimacy of citizenship’s demos-demarcation function, the perpetuation of unequal starting points through intergenerational transmission of membership has largely escaped scrutiny. It is this omission that this Article aims to address.

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