Arp: Is Citizenship Still Worth Something?

February 4, 2021

“Citizenship is what makes a republic; monarchies can get along without it.” — Mark Twain

by Jason Arp

Has the value of American citizenship degraded in recent years? 

It is true that official costs do not reflect any reduction in the official value of U.S. citizenship. A recent report in USA Today shows that the price the U.S. charges for application for citizenship jumped in October from $640 to $1,170.

And not everyone can apply directly and immediately for citizenship. An ABC News report found that those wishing to immigrate can pay attorney fees of over $15,000 in an attempt to gain a green card.

A 2012 research paper by Sankar Mukhopadhyay of the University of Nevada looked at immigration from India to the United States from 1998 to 2008. He estimates that American citizenship is now worth about $12,000 a year to such immigrants.

Unfortunately, this type of data is not regularly updated, and while these official-channel prices seem to be on the rise, perhaps they miss the point. Is there a way to better quantify the intrinsic value of citizenship over time? 

Jeremy Bentham, the English enlightenment philosopher, said that secure private property rights are “the noblest triumph of humanity over itself.” Tom Bethell’s “Noblest Triumph” expands on this theme to stress that human flourishing only occurs where there is security in private property. 

So citizenship where property rights are secure would seem to have a higher value. If that is the case, the U.S. may eventually fall behind.

The Cato Institute finds that we have dropped to 17th on its index of human freedoms, which includes a section on the legal aspects of secure property. We now are just behind England and slightly ahead of places like Iceland and Lithuania.

More to the point here, a related Fraser Institute scale finds that a place like Switzerland, now issuing one of the most coveted citizenships in the world, took major steps legislatively over the past four decades to protect property rights.

Most remarkable is the improvement that the scale shows in prosperity and property rights in the former Soviet Union during this periodBut places like Venezuela, where nobody wants to live, have nearly jettisoned property rights altogether (after having had some of the world’s strongest at the start of the survey period in 1970).

To test this out, I contacted a friend who immigrated to the U.S. from eastern Europe in the early 1990s. He has become a citizen, earned a Ph.D., built a lucrative career and met and married his wife in America. His experience would be helpful in assessing my model.

My model doesn’t put a price on U.S. citizenship per se but attempts to say comparatively whether it has appreciated or depreciated in relation to property rights. For instance, it shows that over the last half century American citizenship has become more valuable to a Venezuelan, living where property rights have grown unstable, and less valuable to a Russian where the situation has improved.

Surprisingly, the friend refused my invitation to be quoted. You see, growing up behind the Iron Curtain he recognizes certain dangerous socio-political changes that natives here may not recognize. He no longer feels free to share his opinion in America. 

In sum, the recent questionable election results, the potential threat of being labeled a domestic terrorist and being put out of work or otherwise “canceled,” property and all, have lowered his valuation of American citizenship.

That says more than my quantitative model ever could.

Jason Arp, for nine years a trader in mortgaged-backed securities for Bank of America, was reelected last year to his second term representing the 4th District on the Fort Wayne City Council. Arp has served on the Redevelopment Commission, the Community Legacy Investment Committee and as co-chair of the Finance Committee of the Common Council. He wrote this at the request of the foundation.


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