Eric Liu puts forward a “modest proposal” in this month’s Atlantic: instead of being awarded citizenship upon birth, perhaps Americans should have to pass a citizenship test just like immigrants to the country. You take the exam at the age of 18 and every ten years thereafter. If you truly bomb it at any point you can kiss your citizenship goodbye. (Liu doesn’t mention what happens next: deportation? Where to?) I took the test and was relieved to graduate “with distinction,” and you’ll no doubt be curious about your score.
When I wrote recently about the declining levels of social mobility in the United States and the duties that fortunate people have to less lucky individuals, I was talking mainly about inequalities of economic opportunity and social capital. But the contingency of our citizenship at birth is the probably the most decisive one of all. All the NSA funny business aside, being born an American buys you an excellent shot at a good, long, secure, healthy life. It brings you opportunities that most of the world’s population can only dream about.
Still, the 14th Amendment gives people born in the United States automatic citizenship for a very good reason, egalitarian concerns to one side. And the citizenship test Liu wrote is strangely heavy on identifying what national landmarks and Supreme Court justices look like. I’d prefer more questions about what the Court has ruled about freedom of speech or privacy rights than what distinguishes the mien of Samuel Alito from that of Antonin Scalia.
The actual test taken by those seeking to naturalize as U.S. citizens looks a little different, and one in three Americans would fail it. If nothing else, being aware of this should embarras you into reviewing your civics. And keeping current with Praxis.