University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Spring 2010

Birthright Lottery

Why should the accidental circumstances of birth confer almost unlimited opportunity to some and condemn others to a life of struggle?

Illustration by Graham RoumieuIt wasn’t until the birth of her child that U of T law professor Ayelet Shachar truly grasped the benefits of being a Canadian citizen. Shachar realized that her son – simply by being born on Canadian soil – had been granted membership into one of the world’s most prosperous and peaceful societies.

Was it fair that her son gained such an opportunity, while a child born in Haiti or Ethiopia, for example, did not?

In her new book, The Birthright Lottery (Harvard University Press, 2009), Shachar, the Canada Research Chair in Citizenship and Multiculturalism, examines a broad range of philosophical and legal issues concerning citizenship. In particular, she focuses on the question of why nations continue to assign citizenship based on the accident of where one is born.

The idea of gaining privileges by such arbitrary criteria as one’s birthplace or bloodline has been discredited and banned in virtually all fields of public life. Citizenship is perhaps the only area in which it still applies. “At present, nations award citizenship mostly by birthright,” says Shachar. A child born in Haiti might not have access to clean water and education, but a child born in Canada will. “The harsh reality is that most people alive today – indeed, 97 per cent of the global population – are assigned citizenship by the lottery of birth and either choose, or are forced, to keep it that way.”

To overcome this arbitrary system of allotting life chances, Shachar suggests looking to property and inheritance legal theory and history. In the feudal era, it was considered part of the “natural structure” that some families were wealthy estate landowners and others weren’t. This notion of entitlement has long since been discarded in property law, but it persists with respect to citizenship, says Shachar. “Citizenship is not a ‘natural structure.’ It is a legal construct. And if we want to maintain it because we believe that it has a social value, then we can’t be blind to the fact that it also has global distributive implications.”

But what can be done? One idea explored in the book is placing a “birthright privilege levy” on those benefiting from the inheritance of citizenship, with the aim of eradicating this system’s most glaring inequalities. Just as many countries established estate taxes to help “level the playing field,” Shachar’s proposed birthright privilege levy – a toll on citizenship inheritance, essentially − is conceived so that some of the good fortune of those who win in the birthright lottery is transferred to those who don’t. “A serious consideration of the privilege of citizenship will also take into account the need for people to give back to the world,” she says.

Another proposal Shachar explores is awarding citizenship based on a person’s genuine connection to a country. This would ease the injustice facing individuals who have resided in certain countries for extended periods of time, but do not have a birthright claim to citizenship.

In putting these ideas together, Shachar’s aim is to highlight the opportunities that come with citizenship as well as the need to justify our good fortune in the birthright lottery; in her view, privilege comes with responsibility. Shachar argues that because citizenship confers legal privileges, there must be a legal duty to address any injustice that arises from it. “If we want to preserve what’s valuable about citizenship – identity, freedom and security – it is imperative to mitigate the effects of membership inheritance,” she says.

Ultimately, Shachar hopes she will at least prompt people in well-off countries to ask themselves “What does being a citizen mean to me?” – and to realize that something they’ve taken for granted all along is actually very valuable. After all, what Canadian travelling abroad hasn’t been told how lucky they are to come from Canada? “I want to motivate people to do something that will make a difference in the world,” she says.

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