Friday 25 August 2017

Flag of Convenience

Malta has been selling citizenship since 2014. The price is at least EUR 880,000, or approximately one million US dollars -- a sum which demands to be spoken in your best Doctor Evil impersonation.

A few other countries have done the same, but Malta is interesting because it's a member of the EU and the Schengen border-free travel area.

Valetta, Malta. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The attraction for rich people from less stable countries is not hard to imagine. Travelling and doing business in Europe suddenly becomes much easier. If your home country undergoes a coup or civil war, or its government decides to pursue a vendetta against you, a safe haven is ready and willing to take you in.

I imagine the Maltese government would refuse citizenship to outright terrorists and war criminals, but you don't have to show any positive commitment to Malta. You are required to buy or rent a house there, but under no obligation to live in it.

My instinctive reaction is to find it rather sad and demeaning. It cheapens a country's citizenship to offer it up for sale, like a particularly exclusive sports car.

The new Maltese citizens aren't just buying fast-track movement through EU border control, even if that's the main difference they notice. They are joining a network of obligations.

It's very hard for human beings to work together in large groups. Our social instincts developed to live in a band of hunter-gatherers, numbering a couple of hundred people at most. Scaling that up to millions, or hundreds of millions, is extremely difficult.

After centuries of blood-soaked trial and error, we have developed some more or less workable institutions. They allow us to live together in our millions with a certain baseline of peace and prosperity. Most of them are built around the nation state. All of them require a degree of trust and shared belief.

In the words of the preamble to the US Constitution, a government is meant to:
... form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty...
It can only do these things through the cooperation of its citizens. Social institutions -- laws, currencies, education, policing -- only function because of a shared agreement to work together.

Institutions are built on our subconscious responses, exploiting our hunter-gatherer brains in ways our distant ancestors would never have imagined. On a visceral level, a nation is an extended family. We might not like everyone in our family, or be related to them by blood, but that doesn't mean we'd accept someone as a family member purely in exchange for money. I think this may account for revulsion to sale of citizenship, even though it won't cause any tangible harm and may be a nice little earner for the Maltese government.

Building national institutions is hard. Building supranational ones is very hard, as the history of the European Union demonstrates.

That said: A thing can be very hard, and still worth trying. If we never tried to rise above our primeval instincts, we wouldn't have laws or nations in the first place.

Nations are important, but national identity is not a simple thing. It has not been handed down by a higher power on tablets of stone. It's a shared idea, a consensual hallucination. It cannot be issued to millions of people in exactly the same form, like so many passport booklets.

I'm thinking of Theresa May's infamous remark:

But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

I am a citizen of the United Kingdom, Canada, and (for now) the European Union. I have an important connection to the USA at one remove, as my wife and son are US citizens. I identify with Scotland, England, Alberta, Edmonton, Cambridge and Edinburgh. The way in which I experience and interpret all this is unique to me.

Beyond ties of locality and nation, I am a human being, part of a species which faces challenges on a global scale. In that sense, we are all citizens of the world.

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