Ancient Models of Citizenship and Migration

Turning to ancient citizenship for solutions.

Thermes de Caracalla by Marion Legouy

By Caleb Ontiveros

Writer, programmer, and founder of Stoa. He focuses on philosophy and is fascinated by stories of the classical world and its gods.

Different people have been led by different causes to leave their homes, but this at least is clear: nothing has stayed where it came into being. The human race is constantly running this way and that, in a world so vast something changes every day.


Approximately 1 million people immigrate to America a year. The number of immigrants here illegally is around 10 million. The inflow of migrants to Europe hovers around the same range with 2.7 million moving in 2019.

If there were fewer legal barriers to immigration, these numbers would be much higher. On the order of hundreds of millions of potential migrants say they would like to come to the US if there were open borders. Revealed preferences and logistics deflate that number, but it’s likely that relaxed restrictions in the states could result in a 2-10x increase in the rate of immigration.

There are compelling reasons to allow more immigration. It’s good for those migrating – they’re given the shot at a better, safer, and prosperous life. It’s often beneficial for those in the destination countries, enriching their markets and culture. Immigrating carries cultural, economic, and, in some cases, physical risks. Despite the costs, moving is worth it for many. And so they move, legally or illegally.

There are also drawbacks. Increased migration may be economically beneficial for some, but not all natives. The cultural changes triggered by an influx of newcomers will not all be positive. Incoming peoples arriving from illiberal and less developed countries can have negative political ramifications. Finally, even if you’re generally disposed to being pro-immigration, there are limits to what those of the opposite persuasion can bear. Unpopular immigration policies may trigger a serious backlash, well-reasoned or not, which renders life in destination countries worse off for all.

Movement into a better state offers not just immediate benefits, but also the chance of citizenship. With citizenship, the economic, political, and cultural benefits are largely assured.

Of course, debates over migration and citizenship are not new. Today, we debate non-violent movement into nation-states. In the past, many movements of people were to destinations with less political capacity – not nation-states. And those who migrated, settled, colonized or conquered. 

The shape of immigration has changed. But struggle over the meaning of citizenship remains central to any state, past or present.

In the 90s BC, the Italian allies demanded citizenship from Rome. Citizenship carried with it economic, political, and legal benefits. A Roman citizen was able to attain significantly better standing in Roman courts, a political voice, lower taxes, freedom of movement within the empire, and, perhaps most importantly, the status of being a Roman.

Romans were understandably protective of the benefits of citizenship. The demand of the allies was not met. One of their champions, Marcus Livius Drusus, proposed extending citizenship to cover the allies in 91 BC. Political opponents, likely the Roman elite, had him assassinated. And so there was war – another episode of Roman against near Roman that defined the 1st century BC. The Social War ended 87 years later. Rome granted citizenship to allies who did not join in the rebel Italians’ cause. This was followed by a general grant of citizenship to all Italians – though political maneuvers rendered the Italian’s vote effectively useless, they gained the other advantages of citizenship.

The pattern of slowly expanding Roman citizenship continued for the life of the Roman empire, with variations. The Roman empire subsumed provincials as second-class (or third-class) citizens. Eventually, they received the benefits of citizenship. The process reached its peak in 212 AD when Caracalla made a general grant of citizenship across the empire.

Up to that point, there were explicit and indefinite legal differences between Roman citizens and classes of non-citizen provincials. This contrasts with liberal nation-states, which contain a body of citizens, those on the track to becoming citizens, an assortment of people with temporary visas, and the class of undocumented.

There is no notion of a legally recognized, indefinite class of migrants.

This offers an underexplored alternative to the immigration issue. Instead of offering full citizenship to all that come, offer partial citizenship. To ease the anxiety of natives, create another class of people without a different, smaller bundle of political and economic rights.

This is inegalitarian. Yet it could also bring about a more free and prosperous future.

I. Opening Borders

Let’s start from the beginning. What, if anything, makes it permissible to restrict immigration today?

Of course, some cases of restriction are obviously justified. The issue at hand isn’t border security. Even the strongest pro-immigration views don’t advocate strict open borders – we should not embrace criminals and terrorists with open arms. It’s possible to lock down one’s border with a highly resourced security regime – and take ten times the number of immigrants as a state does currently. Put differently, walls can have gates.

Cosmopolitanism provides one reason to be partial to open borders. Developed by the Stoics, the thought is that we share our human nature with others. In America, there’s free movement between states. We are all American citizens. In the Schengen Area in Europe, there’s free movement between countries – they are all Europeans. The cosmopolitan wants to treat the world in this manner – we are all citizens of the world. Borders may be useful constructs and promote safety – but they shouldn’t be more than a necessary inconvenience.

The argument is compelling but incomplete. It depends on how seriously one takes cosmopolitanism.

The best case for immigration is simpler. Consider the following premises: (i) immigration restrictions are coercive, (ii) one shouldn’t be coercive unless there’s a good reason, and (iii) there’s no such reason.

The first premise is straightforward. Nation-states enforce immigration restrictions with force and threats of force. That’s coercive. 

The second premise is a common-sense ethical judgment. In general, one shouldn’t go around coercing people. Violence and threats of violence require justification. There’s no good reason for the state to coerce its own citizens from moving across state borders on Sunday, so they shouldn’t do it. There’s no good reason for the state to enforce a ban on Virgil, so they shouldn’t do it.

The third premise is the most controversial. Immigration restrictions limit freedom of movement and free markets. In general, that makes for poor policy. But of course, anyone who defends immigration restrictions well thinks there are good reasons to justify coercion. This section started with one such reason – one can force terrorists and criminals from entering one’s borders to prevent further violence. So, the question here is, are there good reasons to limit migration in ordinary cases?

There is a smorgasbord of reasons given. Usually, they refer to the harms of immigration. Immigration can harm natives – perhaps by lowering their wages or increasing crime. It can harm the state, as immigrants underpay taxes and over-consume social services. Finally, it can damage the politics and culture of the destination state, as immigrants move from illiberal and less developed countries.

In Open Borders, the economist Bryan Caplan goes through the empirics of each of these arguments and finds them wanting. Immigrants probably don’t lower the wages of natives – and even if they do, it’s a small subset of natives. The idea that immigrants increase crime isn’t compelling, at least in America. The math of immigrants underpaying taxes either doesn’t work out or comes out to tiny numbers (less than a Netflix subscription). Finally, immigrants tend to adopt the norms of their host countries within a few generations.

The political philosopher Michael Huemer notes that even if the empirics of these claims were true, most immigration restrictions are still not justified.

Why? It’s not permissible to stop my neighbors from applying for a job, even if they’re willing to risk working for less. The fact that someone’s action will cause wage depression wages, doesn’t remove their prima facie right against coercion. This is true even if the state has a special obligation towards its citizens – after all, it wouldn’t be permissible for me to force my neighbors from applying for a job if they were threatening my children’s wages. The state doesn’t have more powerful obligations to its citizens than a parent does to their children. The anti-immigration argument from crime rates is, at best, a reason to stop particular immigrants (likely younger men) from immigrating, not all potential immigrants. Likewise, if immigrants over-consume social services, the right thing to do is not give them social services – not stop them from immigrating entirely. Finally, the fact that cultural change will occur due to someone’s movement isn’t typically seen as a justifying reason for restricting movement. I can’t stop an influx of Buddhists, Hungarians, or Liberals from moving into my neighborhood, whatever I think of their culture.

That’s a quick tour of what I think is the strongest case for being open to more immigration. I don’t expect it to convince those who have the opposite leaning and it’s admittedly America-centric. But it should motivate people to take the case seriously and be open to compromise.

II. Immigration Skepticism

What’s the best argument against radically increasing open borders?

From my view, it’s the thought that doing so carries with it significant cultural and political risks.

Even gradual increases in the rate of immigration will result in cultural change. The political views of many immigrants moving to the states are not as liberal, economically, or capable as the typical American citizen. There’s a non-trivial risk that the expression of those views will damage the state’s politics and culture. It may be true that when we’re reasoning about ordinary ethical cases, like the example of someone moving into my neighborhood, cultural change isn’t a sufficient reason for restrictions. But political judgments shape countries for decades. Ordinary intuitions may not be sufficient here. If the states had a growth rate that was 1% less over the last century, it would be as well off as Mexico is today. The political views of the citizenry play a non-trivial role in determining growth rates. Small differences make for large differences in the long run.

Even if one is skeptical that rising immigration poses a cultural and political risk, there’s backlash.

Many natives feel a sense of injustice when reflecting on migrants taking advantage of the political and economic benefits of their new countries. The trend to extend welfare to cover the needs of immigrants fuels this reaction. States like California are on a trajectory to grant nearly every government benefit to immigrants, documented or not. For better or worse, California is a contender for cultural leadership, so it may indicate the direction for the rest of the states.

The perceived rise of immigration has likely contributed to the actual rise of populism across the states and Europe. Whatever one thinks of populism, it’s likely less good for immigrants than the alternatives. So, there’s a pro-immigration case for being cautious when removing immigration restrictions. Moving too quickly may result in political decisions that harm the long-term prospects of approaching a just immigration regime.

III. Tiered Citizenship As The Solution

Who, among this people, were the citizens? Technically, those who had been born or adopted into one of the three original tribes of Rome. In practice this meant all males above fifteen years of age who were neither slaves nor aliens, and all aliens who had received a grant of Roman citizenship. Never before or since has citizenship been so jealously guarded or so highly prized.

Will Durant

Returning to Rome, the idea of tiered citizenship addresses the fears of the immigration skeptic. 

If one is worried about political change from immigrants – don’t let them vote. If one is concerned about the cost of welfare – don’t let them consume benefits. If one is concerned about antiliberal backlash, reduce the intensity of the reaction by decreasing the number of migrants’ rights.

In Capitalism, Alone, Branko Milanovic writes:

The native population is more likely to accept migrants the less likely the migrants are to permanently remain in the country and use all the benefits of citizenship. This proposition introduces a negative relationship between (i) willingness to accept migrants and (ii) extension of migrants’ rights.

The idea is that there’s a curve between the two variables. Full extension of the rights of the citizenry will result in low willingness to accept migrants. This can trigger a backlash, increase the probability that assimilation fails, or worse. 

Instead, of granting full rights to all immigrants, slowly expand these services on a generational basis. One way to implement this would be to issue an additional card, a slower-acting green card for non-citizens. This green card would not carry the same political, welfare, or economic benefits as ordinary citizenship.

For the pro-immigration side, this may feel harsh. The immigrant is explicitly treated as a second-class citizen. The symbolism of this is unfortunate. It seems to run up against the idea that all are created equal and American egalitarianism. A strict cosmopolitan may not be happy with it. 

Does this proposal violate the human rights of migrants? If they’re here, then perhaps the state owes them a package of economic, health, and political rights. Newcomers won’t receive a full set of rights from partial citizenship. On this view, even though they may be better off by immigrating, the government enforcing second-class citizenship is unjust. After all, one can violate rights while making someone better off. One problem with this view is that, for many rights under discussion, it’s not clear that anyone possesses them, let alone immigrants. The primary issue however is that it’s not clear why merely moving to a country and minimally integrating with it generates rights. Given the political and economic reach of countries like America, immigrants are already subject to the impact of American decisions. Does that generate political rights, like the right to vote in American elections? Or economic benefits, like a social safety net? There are defenders of every position, and the idea that foreigners should vote is a position, so it has its adherents. Nonetheless, that idea will strike most as being too generous. Given that would-be migrants are already impacted by American politics, that can’t be what justifies rights. Similar remarks apply to cultural or economic factors. Working with or for Americans doesn’t bring the rights of full citizenship into existence. Assimilating into American culture from afar has no relevance. All this suggests that granting partial citizenship is permissible.

Yet egalitarians may still feel uncomfortable with the idea. It appears to contradict the idea that all are created equal. Respecting that is an aspirational goal of liberalism. Second-class citizenship locks in inegalitarianism, transforming the dispensation of justice into a hereditary matter. 

This discomfort fails to take into account the fact that the administration of global justice is de facto hereditary. No one controls where they are born.

Making inegalitarianism more explicit and obvious is worth it when it makes people better off. Hiding the unfairness of the world may sanitize it for those who can’t see it, but doesn’t make it any less real.

And what of the immigration skeptics?

They may still worry that radically increasing the number of citizens, even if second-class and done slowly, will shift culture.

But tiered citizenship removes much of the cultural and political risks. Without significant political and economic power, there will be less negative change from migration. The ancient Romans invoked tiered citizenship with romanization – both were crucial. The data around migrants adopting the norms of liberal countries suggests that liberalization will play a similar role. Leaving aside cases of political strategy, cultural cohesion was an explicit requirement for Roman citizenship. We do not need to lose sight of that requirement today. Consider Robert Bloom and co,

A more crucial test of Roman purpose and vision came when the issue arose of citizenship for the provincials. They were not distant kinsmen nor did they share the same peninsula. During the last two centuries of the republic, citizenship was granted to provincials on a very selective basis. Augustus made no basic change in this policy, He and his immediate successors believed that it should be given only in instances where it was especially deserved. For example, non-citizens in the army were made citizens upon the completion of their long term of service. 

In a world filled with anti-foreign bias and uncertainty surrounding the impact of open borders, partial citizenship may be the best way forward. Think of it as a form of policy trade. Some people want more immigration – others have concerns. A fine trade would be to grant freedom of movement and restrict the benefits of moving.

Over time, the composition of the state will change. The states can let in many more millions of immigrants in. Each will have a chance at living more prosperous and safe lives. Over time, perhaps, their descendants will rise to become citizens.

The present may have the appearance of egalitarianism. But that’s only because the inegalitarianism of today is largely hidden. Second-class citizens are undocumented. Would-be immigrants are restricted to their native states – and relegated to a life of less prosperity.

The future should be better.