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Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Birthright Lottery

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

It 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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  1. 6 Responses to “ Birthright Lottery ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I read Ayelet Shachar's ideas about the "birthright lottery" with incredulity. Does Professor Shachar actually think a "birthright privilege levy" should be paid by people according to whether they happen to be born in, say, Canada rather than Haiti?

    For one thing, nobody gets to choose where they are born. For another, simply being born in a particular country isn't a guarantee of lifelong good fortune, even in Canada - as some of our First Nations and Inuit people can attest to.

    Moreover, living conditions in countries can rise and fall drastically, even within a single lifetime. While I have yet to read Prof. Shachar's book, your account of it suggests that the issues she raises are more complex than she may realize.

    Anne Thackray
    MA 1974

  3. Phil Gunyon says:

    As a "British Subject Born Abroad" in Japan in 1932, I was taken to England in 1938 by my father, a Londoner and my mother, a fourth generation Canadian born and brought up in Toronto. I was never a Japanese and by the decision of father to move us to Canada in 1939, I subsequently became a Canadian citizen in 1952. That was a wise and perhaps lucky decision and I have benefited immensely from it.

    How would Shachar's system would have worked in my case? We were torpedoed on the way to Canada from England in 1939. If father had paid a levy in Japan, would he have had to pay again to get into Canada? If so, would that act of war have afforded us a discount in the levy on arrival?

    I suppose the UN would have to set up the system internationally.... Good luck!

  4. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    This article raises some interesting questions about "why am I here (under these circumstances)?" and "what does it take to be content and fulfilled?’ Does “being born into one of the world’s most prosperous and peaceful societies” equal happiness and peace of mind? It seems that some of the most prosperous people are also some of the most miserable.

    I’ve had the privilege of getting to know people from many countries, some of them quite poor and oppressed, and many of those with joyful and meaningful lives. I suggest that all of us are given a set of circumstances by Divine appointment and can find happiness and fulfillment by living out our God-given purpose. Those of us with “unlimited opportunity” and those of us with less can find joy and contentment in what we have, recognizing that all of life is a gift from God.

    Ellen Errington
    BEd 1998 OISE
    Langley, British Columbia

  5. Christine B says:

    Redistribution of wealth is not a new idea, I believe Karl Marx gets the credit on this one.

  6. jason says:

    I often find academics posing questions like this: Why was I lucky, why can’t everyone else be so lucky. They want to have an egalitarian world. They seem to believe that free nations with strong economies happen by chance. They don’t.

    The people of Canada and the U.S. pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made their respective countries great. I inherited my citizenship from my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. These people made my country a bastion of freedom. They had offspring who preserved this freedom.

    I inherited the right to be an American. It is my duty as an American to make this country as free and as great as I can. You can’t just throw random people into a country and expect it to work. Even our legal immigrants swear to uphold and defend our way of life and our constitution. Citizenship means upholding the values of your country. In mine it happens to be maximum freedom, government by the people, and (but not limited to) exercising rights that are not transferable.

    Good luck trying to get anyone to pay a citizenship tax.

  7. David Watts says:

    We live in countries that are still largely defined by the nature, work and designs of our ancestors. We -- their descendents -- are the beneficiaries of that work and planning. This is why people have children surely: to benefit from and perpetuate that work. So please, let's put aside this ridiculous notion that birth is somehow an accident or that somehow a child of two Canadian parents descended from a long line of Canadians could possibly be born as an Ethiopian. Even if those parents happened to have been traveling in Ethiopia at the time of birth, the child would still have been taken back to Canada or else, had it remained - a Canadian child living in Ethiopia.

    The confusion surely arises because the Canadian government bestows nationality to any child born within its realm, even if the child's parents aren´t Canadian. Would the author prefer that they didn´t?