What does it mean to be a “citizen?”

As we enter the Presidential election cycle, the issue of voting and citizenship rears its head once again. Section 1 of the 14th Amendment states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are ‘citizens’ of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” All citizens of the United States have the right to vote.

A citizen is, “a native or naturalized person who owes ‘allegiance’ to the government and is ‘entitled’ to benefits from that entity.” This notion creates a reciprocal set of obligations. A person receives protections, rights, and privileges from the state. That person also owes loyalty to the government. This entails them being faithful and steadfast in their duty to the government (and in our case, the Constitution).

That relationship has eroded. What has happened to the sentiment expressed in President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country…” This appears to have been turned on its head. Our “citizens” (and residents-legal or illegal) now demand an ever-increasing plethora of benefits from the country. Sadly, many are unwilling to reciprocate.

We have become an “entitled” country. In fact, we call them “entitlements” in the Federal budgeting process. People now view benefits from the government as their “right.” This is an interesting transposition. Benefits are privileges, they can be given or withdrawn (e.g., legislation can be changed). Rights are immutable; they cannot be legally denied (e.g., the Constitution and Bill of Rights). Social subsidies and welfare programs are “privileges” not “rights.” Yet our “citizens” have come to view them as something they deserve, something that cannot be taken away (under any circumstances) … and something that must be increased over time.

What do our “citizens” contribute in return? Most people fulfil (at least some of the minimum) obligations expected of them: vote, jury duty. obey the laws, etc. However, it appears that a sizeable (and growing) portion of the population give little (if anything) in return.

In some urban areas where enforcement is lacking, drug addicts simply walk into a store and take what they want, knowing there will be no repercussions. This entails not only a disregard for laws, but also a lack of respect for another’s property. Some segments of our society now view law enforcement officers as the enemy. Even accepting that there are cases of police abuse, this creates an odd juxtaposition of demand for services on the one hand and blatant disregard of authority on the other. Yet most still demand services from the government.

There is a decreasing commitment and willingness to defend our country. This is witnessed by the recruiting shortfalls now being experienced by the military services (41,000 short of their goals last year). There are also signs of decreasing loyalty to our country (e.g., the Pledge of Allegiance is rarely part of school routine). Do we even teach “Civics” in school?

Just “showing up” to participate seems an unbearable burden for some. The low voter turnout is indicative of this condition. The blowback for even requiring a “photo ID” is further proof. What does this say about the state of our society, if you are unwilling to expend the effort to get a document identifying you as a citizen.

Rober Heinlein’s epic science fiction novel, “Starship Troopers” portrays a more restrictive concept., “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part…and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.” In his view, it is inherently “limited because things are only valued if they come at a price.” That price to be paid is the obligations one has to their country. It is reminiscent the ancient Greek notion that citizenship requires moral virtue. It must be earned.

I do not advocate the more draconian approach to citizenship, but I do lament the decline of our public behavior. The government is not true to its mandates. The people do not trust the government.  Our barely functioning national government tries to “buy off” the populous with benefits (and tax breaks). The people take (and expect ever more). Yet, they seem unwilling to accept and fulfill their reciprocal obligations.

The demise of the “social contract” between the governed and their government is embodied in this discussion. The continued vitality of our nation may ultimately rest on our ability to remedy this situation. It took the horrific events of the 911 attacks to pull our country together and unite the nation (for however briefly). We saw the threat and we responded as a people. That sentiment appears to have passed.

Today, I am not sanguine that we can reverse the trend. One has only to look at the two presumptive Presidential contenders and the likely outcome (no matter who wins) to see the specter of the Pale Horse on the horizon.

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