Citizenship Guarantees Service

January 6, 2019


Those of us familiar with Heinlein's Starship Troopers understand the relationship between citizenship and violence. Heinlein coined the phrase "service guarantees citizenship," and distinguished between "civilians" who benefited from their society, and "citizens" who made their society beneficial. The former requires nothing. The latter requires sacrifice. Why let civilians vote? If they don't suffer from their own mistakes, then they're bound to destroy their own nation. They'll just choose what seems cool, or novel, or serves their own interests. If it backfires, then they'll just leave, or let the weight of their error fall on someone else. Better to have the citizens who fight and die over those choices be the ones to call the shots. Heinlein argued that if you serve (sacrifice), then you get citizenship. You get to be a decider because you have skin in the game.


Perhaps this seems more obvious now than it did in 1959, when Heinlein published the book.


But there is a corollary to "service guarantees citizenship." Because the challenges facing a nation are continuous, a one-shot sacrifice for the right to choose ad infinitum isn't good enough. For decisions to be trustworthy, the alignment of benefits and failures must be continuous. Citizenship, in other words, must guarantee service.


Nassim Taleb writes about the superiority and legitimacy of citizen-leaders in his book Skin in the Game:


"This idea of skin in the game is woven into history: historically, all warlords and warmongers were warriors themselves, and, with a few curious exceptions, societies were run by risk takers, not risk transferors.


Prominent people took risks--considerably more risks than ordinary citizens [what we call "civilians"]. The Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, about whom much later, died on the battlefield fighting in the never-ending war on the Persian frontier--while emperor. One may only speculate about Julius Caesar, Alexander, and Napoleon, owing to the usual legend-building by historians, but here the proof is stark. There is no better historical evidence of an emperor taking a frontline position in battle than a Persian spear lodged in his chest (Julian omitted to wear protective armor). One of his predecessors, Valerian, was captured on the same frontier, and was said to have been used as a human footstool by the Persian Shapur when mounting his horse. And the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, was last seen when he removed his purple toga, then joined Ioannis Dalmatus and his cousin Theophilus Palaeologus to charge Turkish troops with their swords above their heads, proudly facing certain death. Yet legend has it that Constantine had been offered a deal in the event of a surrender. Such deals are not for self-respecting kings.


These are not isolated anecdotes. The statistical reasoner in this author is quite convinced: less than a third of Roman emperors died in their beds--and one can argue that given that only few of these died of really old age, had they lived longer, they would have fallen either to a coup or in battle.


Even today, monarchs derive their legitimacy from a social contract that requires physical risk-taking. The British Royal family made sure that one of its scions, Prince Andrew, took more risks than "commoners" during the Falkland war of 1982, his helicopter being in the front line. Why? Because noblesse oblige; the very status of a lord has been traditionally derived from protecting others, trading personal risk for prominence--and they happened to still remember that contract. You can't be a lord if you aren't a lord."



Citizenship guarantees service. It must, or else the nation suffers. The citizen is one who is invested in his country, and who reaps both the benefits and the costs of his own decisions when implemented as policy. The citizen whose interests are not aligned in this way -- the one who transfers the risks and only reaps the rewards -- is not a citizen at all. Not as far as civic virtue is concerned. He is a civilian. A leech. A Chickenhawk. A fair-weather patriot.


There is nothing wrong with being a civilian. There is nothing intrinsically bad about passing up the risks, so long as you aren't also a decision-maker. But most of these armchair-general "citizens" insist that being a decision-maker is a human right. That they deserve a say, merely for existing. And they also deserve protection from the consequences of their own actions.


The citizen is a risk-taker. He need not seek them out, or even experience the threats inherent in maintaining the security and prosperity of a nation. But he must be willing and able to face them. Whereas the civilian seeks to maximize personal utility, the citizen aligns his own utility with that of the nation.


The citizen has skin in the game. The civilian does not.


What must one do to be a citizen?


1. Be Dangerous


The civilian outsources the defense of himself and his country, but should those outer sources fail, he and his nation are helpless. Because of this, he becomes dependent upon those who provide what he refuses to do for himself. Such a person can never be free.


The citizen is a wolf among dogs. He must be able and willing to defend himself and his family, and should the need arise, his country as well. This will probably entail owning a military-grade rifle, not for home defense but for war. Should a home-invader break into his house, he doesn't need to call 911, although he might do so if he is feeling merciful. He has the freedom to take either course. His family is safe either way.


In the same way, the citizen does not defer the responsibility of maintaining the physical security of his country to others. He takes the burden upon himself, and prepares himself for what may be necessary. In doing so, he reduces the risk of such a crisis coming to be in the first place. Deterrence is the best defense.


2. Understand the Game


There is no sense in having "skin in the game" if you don't know what game you're playing. Many patriots who talk about defending "the constitution" couldn't tell you what the constitution is. Some have never even read it. Is it an Enlightenment-based document, founded in humanistic notions of individualism and natural-rights? Or is it a codified extension of the Common Law tradition? Or is it an empirical theory of government based in pre-Christian antiquity, on the Republics of Rome and Sparta?


It would be a shame to invest yourself in one of these, only to later realize that what you risked your life for turned out to be something else entirely. Better to understand what it is you are aligning yourself with first, so that your sacrifices will be for constructive effects, rather than destructive ones.


The citizen has read most of the founding documents of his country, and probably the texts on which those documents were based. This includes the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, and the older works upon which all of these rested: Aristotle's Politics, Plato's Republic, Cicero's Defense of the Republic, Plutarch, Herodotus, and perhaps Homer and the Bible.


Knowing an excerpt from deTocqueville's Democracy in America, or having fond feelings about a poem underneath some statue in New York, don't count.


Armed with this knowledge, the citizen is not only aware of what he is invested in, but is better able to defend it with words. He is not only physically dangerous, but intellectually dangerous.


3. Invest as a Citizen


Having "skin in the game" is not just about action. It is a set of dynamics and relationships. What is right as a citizen may not be evident in advance, but will become apparent with the appropriate incentives.


Above all else, guard your heart,
For everything you do flows from it.

- Proverbs 4:23


If you work for an international company that could give you employment in Beijing just as easily as in New York; if you own timeshares in the Bahamas and Geneva; if you own no land and have no children; if you have no close relationships with the people in your community, or binding ties to the nation you supposedly owe loyalty to, then you are not a citizen. You are a transient. You play all the hands, never folding because for you, the chips are never down, even though they may be for someone else. Your decisions are bets with other people's coin.


The citizen's heart is invested in the future of his nation. He runs a small business, is close with his church, has children, and hasn't left himself a bunch of "outs." He doesn't speak five languages, hasn't shorted the dollar, and doesn't "keep two in the kitty."




Citizenship does not require us to have once risked our lives or our reputation for our country. It requires on ongoing ability and willingness to take those risks, even if the need never arises in our own lifetimes. It requires having stake in the game. It requires believing that our service will be needed, even if the odds are against it.


Citizenship guarantees service.


Being a civilian is nice. It's comfortable. But you will never get the love and respect of your fellow countrymen. Not to the same degree as a true citizen. The citizen is invested in the same things as his fellow citizens, and for this reason, can be trusted to have an opinion worth hearing on matters of importance.


The civilian may be fun at parties. He may be interesting. You may even learn something from him. But at the end of the day, you know that he'll probably leave when the going gets tough... because he can. Because he has every reason to leave, and no reason to stay, and risk his own neck for anyone else.


The civilian only serves himself. His thoughts and opinions can be looked at like those of a child -- sometimes interesting, but of no real value to the situation.


If you want to be taken seriously, if you want the respect given to adults in a world of children, being a civilian won't cut it. You must be a true citizen.


So ditch your international condos and quit trying to learn Mandarin.


Quit playing video games and read the classics.


Sell your cloak and buy a gun.


Become a citizen, and only then can you take responsibility for the freedoms we enjoy, and preserve them for the generations to come.



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