Why you should care

Because if you fancy moving to the U.K., we could trade passports.

Many of you were born with one of the most valuable assets in the world, one that millions of people would go to extraordinary lengths — often risking their own lives — to acquire: citizenship. But you can’t sell it, even if you wanted to. Ask a free-market economist, and she would call that a gold standard example of inefficiency — the government stepping in to prevent a reasonable transaction that would make both parties happier. Thanks, Obama.

Maybe it’s time for a rethink. On Super Tuesday, Google reported a spike in searches in the United States for the phrase “how can I move to Canada?” as news of Donald Trump’s primary victories was announced. Similarly, the week after the Brexit vote, the Irish Embassy reported a twentyfold increase in the number of applications for Irish passports from my fellow U.K. citizens. While both the U.S. and the U.K. have tightly restrictive immigration policies that are getting even tighter, it seems many existing citizens would at least flirt with, and even seriously contemplate, leaving. So why don’t we create a global marketplace for citizenship, where we can buy, sell and trade our legal right to live and work around the world? If you’d had enough of where you’re living now, or think that greater economic or social opportunities await you elsewhere, you could log on, put your national membership up for sale and use the proceeds to purchase your brand-new passport. You might make a hefty profit if you chose to become Afghan (officially, it seems, the world’s worst passport), whereas if you fancy kicking back in Sweden for a few years, you might need to cough up some extra cash. The price mechanism of a free market could efficiently match labor supply with demand across the globe.

You could open up futures markets in passports, you could have derivatives.

David Card, professor of economics, U.C. Berkeley

OK, it might sound a little crazy. But let’s be honest, our current immigration system is hardly the paradigm of pragmatism. Depending on whom you ask, it’s letting too many people in, not letting enough of the right people in, is far too complicated or simply shouldn’t exist. It has elements of “a very inefficient rationing system” and introduces “a lot uncertainty and arbitrariness,” says David Card, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Then there are the lawyers, the loopholes, the unwanted degrees that immigrants pursue solely to be able to stay in the country — it’s basically just “pissing away resources,” Card argues. As for a citizenship marketplace, he says, “I think an economist would have a hard time saying that that shouldn’t be considered seriously.”

“Investor visas” already exist in many countries, including the United States — they involve little more than writing a check (admittedly, a hefty one) for the right to live and work in the country. And some economists have been proposing the idea of auctioning off visas as a more efficient way to control immigration, ensuring that only the most ambitious, entrepreneurial immigrants willing to put a price on their desire to move would make the cut.

Obviously, not everyone will embrace the idea of introducing the free market to the realm of citizenship and immigration. “Do we want a society where everything is up for sale, or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money [should] not buy?” asked Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, in a 2013 TED Talk. For Sandel and others, citizenship is much more than just the right to live and work somewhere — it’s membership in a political and social community and, much like a marriage, requires mutual commitment. Putting a price on it, then, is likely to corrupt the institution of citizenship and the people who trade it.

“Frankly, he’s just making that up,” says Jason Brennan, co-author of every libertarian’s bible, Markets Without Limits. Brennan argues that “the way we impute meaning to things like citizenship” can in fact be destructive: “The cost of thinking about citizenship in this kind of magical way that Sandel does” could prevent us from cashing in on a much more efficient and productive immigration system. And boy, could we cash in. The deadweight loss from the inefficiency of global immigration restrictions could be as high as 100 percent of world GDP, says Brennan, who advocates open borders around the world. And dissolving some of the political and social meanings that currently surround the concept of citizenship could help prevent the dangers of identity politics and nationalism.

Admittedly, non-U.S. citizens like myself may be waiting a while before immigration eBay comes along to answer all of our green card–themed dreams. While it is “intellectually an interesting idea, a kind of Ayn Rand-ian dream,” acknowledges Card, “it is totally impractical.” There are no global politicians with a constituency made up of would-be migrants, so there is little political incentive to enact such a thing. In the words of Harvard’s George Borjas, perhaps the world’s leading immigration economist, “it sounds like an idea that economists would love. And that perhaps is its essential problem.”

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