Criteria For Citizenship

In a previous blog post I covered a long list of criteria on which people could be judged, having nothing to do with race or skin color. The standards that were listed are just some of the ways of judging a person, whether it’s someone you’re considering for a job, a romantic relationship, someone you are inviting into your home, or into your country.

Here I will discuss more specifically the criteria for someone to become a citizen of a rights-respecting limited government.

A limited government is based on the consent of the governed, and so is formed by voluntary contract. The primary guiding principle when judging an applicant for citizenship is whether they understand and agree to the contract in question.

The core criteria to check for their agreement would include:

  • Do they understand the moral and political philosophy that is the essence of the idea of limited government?
  • Do they fully agree with this essence?
  • Do they hold beliefs that are contradictory to this agreement?

In this contract they are voluntarily binding themselves to adherence to the government’s laws and procedures, and the consequences for breaking them. It’s important they understand what it means to have signed this, not just in granting them entrance into the country, but the privileges and protections afforded to them, and also that this makes them subject to governmental authority and imposes certain obligations. Without a legal agreement in place, the government cannot legally – or justly – either provide the benefits or impose the obligations and consequences on them.


Understanding is the most straightforward criteria to test. This would be a standard academic test for comprehension – essentially a civics exam. Some of the criteria for a good test of understanding would include:

  • Can they define the relevant terms? (like, “rights”, “justice”, “contract”, “citizen”, etc.)
  • Can they give examples?
  • Can they cite factual information about how these ideas are implemented in this country? (e.g. the branches of government, the bodies of the legislature, who are the current heads of government, and so on)
  • Can they distinguish whether a given position (or a given example) is or is not consistent with the ideas? (for example, “can insulting your beliefs be made illegal?”, or, “can a person’s immoral behavior be outlawed if it isn’t harming anyone else?”)
  • Can they write a persuasive essay (and/or give a persuasive oral argument) identifying the main reasons justifying the positions?

Ideally there should be a curriculum and classes to teach these the ideas and the reasoning behind them to those who seek citizenship, including to high-school students coming of age.

(While the United States’ naturalization process is remarkably good, it is unfortunately only currently used for foreigners becoming citizens, whereas it should be a process any long-term resident goes through, including children born here. Birthright citizenship is fundamentally incompatible with a limited government, which has at its core a signed, voluntary, contractual agreement. Many problems arise from birthright citizenship, from people who feel as though obligations like taxation are being unfairly imposed on them, to people who are working to subvert and transform the nature of the government, all because they never had to agree to these terms of their citizenship or the specific nature of the government they were joining in the first place. The issues with birthright citizenship will be addressed more fully in a future post.)


While a signature on a binding contract signifies agreement, and other similar methods like requiring a sworn oath, or line-by-line confirmation of the main points can emphasize it, ultimately agreement is more difficult to verify than knowledge. Verifying agreement requires making judgments about the person – backed by some specific evidence. For example, in order to judge if they value hard work, their work history could be verified. In order to judge if they have good character, character references could be required.

Many of the standard questions for a job interview would also be relevant:

  • Asking about the person’s past and what challenges/weaknesses/mistakes they’ve overcome, and how they think they’ve grown and learned from them.
  • Hypothetical “what would you do if…?” questions to determine their judgement, reasoning, problem-solving ability, and their priorities.
  • Why are you choosing to apply here? What specifically attracted you and why do you think you’d be a good fit?
  • What are your goals and where do you see yourself in 10 years?

These kind of in-person interviews are an effective tool for judging a potential employee in business, and should be an essential part of judging applicants for citizenship as well.

Similarly, before getting married, couples may go through pre-marital counseling, which has many of the same criteria as a citizenship agreement: a good counselor will try to make sure that you fully understand the nature of the commitment, and that you understand the responsibilities it entails. They will try to understand whether you are making the decision for the rights reasons, and get you to seriously think about whether this relationship is right for you. They will also go through some of the potential trials that you may encounter, and make sure you are aware of these possibilities at the outset before you make the commitment. Taking a similar approach with citizenship can help the government make a better judgment about the suitability of the applicant, and help prepare the applicant for their future citizenship.

Other evidence could be gleaned from psychological tests, like the kind that employers sometimes use to determine, in a roundabout way (without asking you directly so you know what the “right” answer is), whether you have certain personality traits. Indications for personality characteristics like psychopathy, sociopathy, aggression, or anti-sociality – or moral characteristics like deceitfulness, or lack of respect for rules or boundaries when seeking a reward, may be helpful in forming an overall judgment about the person. Psychological tests that demonstrate the ranking of preferences would also be helpful, like showing that truth and liberty outrank concerns like comfort and political stability.

All of these can provide evidence demonstrating to what extent someone truly agrees to the contract they are signing, and could potentially delay or rule out an applicant if there are too many red flags. There is no way to obtain perfect knowledge of a person’s true beliefs or intent, but perfect verification isn’t ultimately necessary. If their understanding has been verified, and they have signed a legal agreement, then at least holding them accountable is justified if they do break the law.

Contradictions to the agreement

Even when a candidate has demonstrated their understanding and has claimed agreement, contradictory information can undermine the credibility of their claim.

Any candidate who is found to be lying at any point during the process can be rejected. Dishonesty undermines their credibility, and as a character trait is incompatible with a rights-respecting society.

Any candidate presenting a clear threat, such as holding an un-renounced citizenship with an enemy country, membership in a terrorist group, or a violent criminal record can be rejected.

Another important check for a potential citizen is for adherence to incompatible belief systems. Take for example the belief in marxism, socialism, or communism – collectivist belief systems clearly contradictory to a libertarian limited government based on individual rights (there are other incompatible belief systems which will be the subject of a future post). If there is hard evidence that a person is an active member of an organization based on these ideas, then they can be categorically ruled out for citizenship. If they are a former member, or are known to associate with such groups, or have made public statements in support of these ideologies, then this might raise a red flag – especially if they refuse to denounce the ideas, or can’t persuasively argue the main reasons that the idea of limited government is opposed to them.

A good example of screening candidates in this respect was employed when the Nazarene Fund, vetting refugees coming out of Syria and Iraq, had to prove that the candidate was a long-term member of a local Christian church. Evidence such as church membership documentation, and known church members who could vouch for them were required (among other things) in order to show that they had a belief system compatible with the country that would take them in (and didn’t have allegiance to ISIS).

Is this necessary?

One may argue that every human being is already capable of understanding and agreeing with the basic moral principles of respecting individual rights – so why bother with all of this screening and testing? Shouldn’t everyone just be convinced by the good ideas and the beneficial results they produce?

“America 150 years ago had a completely different attitude to immigration.. the statue of liberty basically says “bring em on”, “just come”… we believed that people could change. We believed that when confronted with good ideas, with just ideas, with right ideas, with freedom, that people would adapt to those ideas. That they wouldn’t just mindlessly bring their culture to America and impose their culture on America- they’ll turn America into Mexico. No, what we believed then was that we would turn Mexicans into Americans, we would get rid of the bad stuff that they brought in, embrace the good stuff, but ultimately make them Americans ideologically.”

“[One of the motivations] behind the anti-immigration attitude [is] a complete lack of confidence in what it means to be American, in what America stands for, and the idea that we can convince people to adopt our ideal.”

– Yaron Brook, Free Will and Free Borders

The problem with this argument is that knowledge is not automatic, and neither is agreement. As an old saying goes, a teacher can lead you to the door, but the student must walk through it. If the student (some candidate for citizenship in this case) is not interested in learning the ideas or understanding the system, or if they have their own incompatible beliefs, the general environment in society cannot force them to change their mind (nor should the citizens in this society be forced to accept the cost and the risk of this naive hope).

There is a difference between the capability of a person to understand and agree, and whether they actually, currently do. The purpose of screening and testing applicants for citizenship is to hold them to the required standards of knowledge and beliefs that will earn them the right to call themselves a full citizen of the country, and not extend them unearned credit.

“Man has free will. He can always correct… his weaknesses, or his flaws. But he cannot expect the unearned, neither in love, nor in money; neither in matter, nor spirit.” -Ayn Rand, Mike Wallace interview

“I am not committing the contemptible act of asking you to take me on faith”

“If one’s actions are honest, one does not need the predated confidence of others… a moral blank check” – Francisco d’Anconia, Atlas Shrugged

As many people as possible should be encouraged to understand the idea of limited government, to believe in it, and to become citizens. But there is a responsibility to carefully screen and judge those who wish to join, for the sake of the integrity of the contract, the safety of the citizens, and the integrity of all interactions in society, in business and otherwise.

4 thoughts on “Criteria For Citizenship”

  1. I believe there is a major flaw in this proposal.

    There is an essential difference between a voluntary organisation, like a business or university, and a coercive organisation like the government.

    This means that you cannot simply have a government organisation use interviews or membership tests to judge if someone is a good fit, the way a private business can.

    The difference is due to the fundamental divide between profit-based management and bureaucratic management. (See Mises’ book Bureaucracy). In brief, a profit-seeking organisation has a clear metric of success, and can give managers a lot of autonomy and discretion to make decisions according to their own judgement. If the organisation makes money, great, if it loses money, well, someone is making poor decisions (it is up to senior management to try to figure out who).

    With a bureaucratic agency, there’s no clear metric of success, no clear way to measure if the organisation is doing a “good job”. If you do set a target (say a government run hospital sets a target of reducing waiting times), the invective is for managers to spend all of their budget achieving the target. You then need an extra rule to control budgets, an extra rule to decide how rules are changed, etc. Decisions in a government bureaucracy cannot be made by individual discretion but have to be made by tightly defined policies. (Mises’ book explains this in more depth).

    Let’s apply this principle to the concrete case of border control. Let’s say you’ve come up with an entrance exam to test for good character.

    Well, immigrants, being very motivated to pass the test, will be incentivised to simply memorize the relevant answers or cram the relevant material. Anyone can do that. It might have a minor benefit, but it won’t screen for “good character”.

    Suppose instead you include a more elaborate written exam, or a personal interview. Something that is ultimately dependant on the personal judgment of the government decision-maker.

    You then have three additional problems:

    – a cottage industry of “interview prep” consultants will spring up in immigrant origin countries, coaching them to pass the tests

    – the bigger problem: you have no way to tell if an individual bureaucrat is making good decisions (i.e., accepting people in line with your definition of “good character”)

    – the other big problem: you have no way to tell if your criteria are actually correct (i.e., could they be too strict? Too lax?)

    To expand on the second point: an individual bureaucrat may secretly disagree with your criteria, and covertly accept or reject people based on their own preferences. Or, they may simply not be that bright, and misapply the criteria or misjudge applicants. The only way to track this is to have a lengthy “appeals process” — which means in practice a senior bureaucrat’s whim overruling that of a junior bureaucrat.

    (Actual legal courts only adjudicate “questions of fact” or “questions of law” — what did the defendant do and what laws apply? They don’t pass judgement on questions like “does the defendant have a good character?” which are inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation. They might get a character witness to testify to the defendant’s character, but all that demonstrates is that “person A thinks person B has a good character”, and not “person B actually does have a good character).

    To expand on the third point: suppose three years into your program you want to evaluate it to see if your criteria need to be changed. How are you going to do it? Are you going to track down the people who passed your immigration test to see if they were actually good citizens? How will you judge that? If someone got divorced, got fired, was in a legal dispute, does that prove bad character? Likewise, how could you ever determine if your test is too strict and you are turning away good people?

    This consideration does not apply to for-profit decision making. Google can decide that new applicants must pass two tests: a challenging programming test, and an interview to determine if they are sufficiently “Googly”. Let’s suppose “Googliness” is entirely arbitrary and subjective, and the coding test is somewhat unfair (not all programmers are good at whiteboard tests). It doesn’t matter. Google can give hiring managers wide discretion on who the hire, as the only issue that matters is that they recruit a sufficient number of productive people and not too many unproductive people. And, if a great programmer misses out on their dream job at Google due to being deemed insufficiently Googly – the free market gives them many other companies to work at.

    To reiterate, any government decisions must either be based on concrete rules or formulas (which can be gamed), OR personal discretion (i.e., the whim of some bureaucrat). Unlike in voluntary organizations, government organizations cannot leave decisions to personal discretion, because there is no inherent source of accountability.


    There are only three sources of concrete information that can judge immigrant suitability:

    1. They are self-sufficient. Which means: they are able to find a job in the target country, or have sufficient savings to live off.

    2. They respect individual rights. Which means, simply: they don’t commit any serious crimes. Commit a serious crime, get deported.

    3. They’re not a security risk. Which means: they’re not coming from a blacklisted country (e.g., Afghanistan, Somalia). If they are, the responsibility is on them to demonstrate that they’re not a risk.

  2. I realised that I can boil down my previous comment to something much more succinct.

    This proposal raises two essential questions:

    Who decides what the criteria should be? (I feel like atheists are usually untrustworthy. At the very least potential citizens should have points deducted if they are atheists. Who are you to tell me I’m wrong?)

    And: who selects the agents who enforce the criteria?

  3. Isaac,

    Sorry for the delay in responding, I didn’t realize your comment was awaiting my approval.

    To address your concerns,

    1. You have a concern that tests for comprehension are too easy to game and fake it.

    While it is possible to cram for a test and get coached on the right answers, being able to pass a test is still a decent check of someone’s comprehension of the ideas. Testing is used universally in academic and other settings with pretty good success (otherwise everyone would have PhD’s and score 1600 on their SATs, etc.)

    Also, it’s way more difficult to pass an essay question, much less an oral exam / interview, if you lack deep understanding. With a good and knowledgable interviewer (like think of a tech interview), someone trying to fake their way through is going to have a pretty tough time. Even a multiple choice test, in a controlled environment, rules out cheating and can be tough to pass – let alone tests of persuasive argument from trained interviewers.

    2. You are concerned that checks for agreement and the interviewing process are too subjective to be effective.

    It’s true that someone could get coached on how to respond to job interview style questions, and could potentially scam the check for references, like applying to any job. But that is still difficult and takes some doing. And psychological tests are harder to scam, but that’s still theoretically possible, too. Things like background checks and screening for lying or incompatible beliefs are also key to this, and that’s even harder to scam when you’re looking at a documented record.

    As for the interviewers themselves: interviewing is just a skill, and people can be trained in it. Most people want to say what they think anyway, and it’s not hard to get someone off a memorized script and off-guard, you’d have to be pretty motivated and smart to intentionally hide your real opinions that are disqualifying. The average person is not going to beat trained interviewers, which is why lawyers will advise never to talk to the police. In fact, trained police interviewers might be a good choice for who conducts the interviews.

    And the interviews aren’t totally a subjective pass/fail, either, “at the whim of some bureaucrat”. A candidate can be judged on the specific dimensions and criteria described above (and in my other post) by a given interviewer, and the interviews can be audited later; it doesn’t have to be up to any one person whether you get in or not. A single interview might be able to fail you, but they aren’t the final say if you pass. I like the idea of a jury of local residents in the area that the candidate intends to reside as giving the final pass. The evidence and testimony of the interviewers can be presented to the jury and they can make the final determination whether they will let the candidate join.

    3. Part of the whole idea here is to foster a sense of citizenship, like they have in countries like South Korea. If you pull a long con and get in, there are still going to be strong social checks on you afterwards, and a free society is a lot less forgiving. Because citizenship is going to be a real and meaningful status for 99% of people, when they find out about someone who got into the system who doesn’t really agree with their ideas, with total freedom of association they can make it very hard for that person to live (and intergenerational assimilation would be hard to avoid, too). Also, there should be additional checks for citizens who want to hold public office to confirm their views are still in agreement with the essence of the system.

    It would be extremely hard for a subversive element to make a demographic or political impact under these constraints.

    1. Thanks for the reply.

      My above comment was somewhat long-winded, as I hadn’t boiled down my views on immigration or considered all the angles.

      This article is close to my own views — the government needs to secure the borders but otherwise should assume potential immigrants are innocent until proven guilty:

      As for ideological screening, I don’t think it’s the legitimate role of government to inspect the contents of people’s heads. I think the idea is based on implicit Platonism, where government bureaucrats take the role of Plato’s guardians, judging the virtue of potential newcomers to the hypothetical ideal Republic.

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