Michael Walzer

’s Views On Citizenship Essay, Research Paper

So You Want To Be a Citizen: What Michael Walzer Thinks You Should Know

Jason Pyrz

PLSC 100

Essay #2

Prof. Mayer


Jason Pyrz

Page 1 of 5

Distribution of membership, in this case citizenship, has its own set of rules. Wrong or right as they may be, Michael Walzer, author of Spheres of Justice, has his own theory on the way things should be. Since the idea of membership is a fairly easy and universal idea to grasp, for the purposes of this discussion, we will look at citizenship as political membership in a society. Walzer, in his book, offers his own thoughts on just how exactly citizenship should be distributed. Also contained in the section of his book on citizenship, is a large commentary on the guest worker system. Since Walzer’s views are articulated through his commentary on this system, we will use it to explain his position on the distribution of citizenship, as well as his views towards the guest worker system.

Walzer begins his argument by saying basically that the same standards apply to naturalization (the granting of citizenship) as to immigration, and that every immigrant and every resident is, or at least should have the potential to become, a citizen (p.52). This, explains Walzer, is why territorial admission is such a serious matter. Walzer seems to believe that immigration laws are generally less strict than naturalization laws, due to the fact that governments can use this in their favor to exploit these non-citizens. In other words, resident aliens are admitted to free the current citizens from hard and unpleasant work. As Walzer describes it, the state becomes like a family with live-in servants. The main reason that this is no good in Walzer’s opinion is that in order for this arrangement to happen, the citizens are exercising a parental type of authority outside of its sphere, over adult men and women who are not currently and may never be full members of this so called “family” (p.53).

Jason Pyrz

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In terms of distribution of citizenship, Walzer would say that it should be distributed on the basis of free exchange. In the case of the resident alien working in an undesirable job, that alien deserves the benefits of citizenship because of the fact that he is providing a service, or good, to the state to which he can derive those benefits from. This way, no unjust power is being asserted over the non-citizen, and he is receiving the benefits of membership in the society to which he is contributing.

A deeper understanding of Walzer’s reasoning can be reached, as stated before, in his commentary on the European guest worker system. Simply put, a guest worker system is one in which the government of a (usually) strong state recruits workers from other (usually) weaker countries to come and perform jobs that its own citizens would object to doing without some sort of costly labor negotiations. As Walzer states, it is imperative that the workers who are admitted are truly “guests” and not immigrants hoping to some day become citizens of the country. This is because of the fact that these workers would someday become citizens, join the domestic labor force, and sooner or later create the same problem they were called in to help alleviate. In addition to this, as they advanced within the domestic workforce, they would come into direct competition with the local workers. This is why the guest worker programs are designed to bar them from the protection of citizenship (p.56). Some of the ways in which their rights are limited are by issuing visas with set time limits, and contracts to a particular employer where if they lose their jobs they must leave the country. Because of their lack of citizenship, they have no political rights. Walzer says “The civil liberties of speech,

Jason Pyrz

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assembly, association – otherwise strongly defended – are commonly denied to them, sometimes explicitly by state officials, sometimes implicitly by the threat of dismissal and deportation” (p.57).

Walzer goes on to attack the claim that guest workers do not deserve political power due to their status. As he puts it, “Political power is precisely the ability to make decisions over periods of time, to change the rules, to cope with emergencies; it can’t be exercised democratically without the ongoing consent of its subjects” which Walzer points out include every man and woman who lives within the area where those decisions are enforced. This is the whole point behind calling guest workers, guest workers, to imply that they do not actually live where they work (p.58). This gives the guest worker no more rights than those of a tourist, although they contribute much more to the society in which they are working than a tourist would. As Walzer says, guest workers “come because they need the work, not because they expect to enjoy the visit” (p.59). They are not on vacation, and they usually do not spend their days as they please.

Another argument against this system in Walzer’s view is that because naturalization is open to others exactly like the guest workers but not to the guest workers themselves. Guest workers are locked into an inferior position, where they government looks almost tyrannical, which in Walzer’s opinion is one of the ultimate wrongs. He claims that these governments are asserting power outside their spheres over men and women who resemble citizens in every respect that counts in the host country, but are nevertheless barred from citizenship (p.59).

Jason Pyrz

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Yet another pitch for the restructuring of the role of the guest worker is that since they do socially necessary work, are deeply entrenched in the legal system, participate in the economy, and are also participants within the law, they should be able to think of themselves as potential or future participants in politics as well (p.60). In addition, Walzer says that they must be set on the road to leadership. Whether or not they decide to become citizens is up to them, most however, will choose to return to their home countries.

Walzer ends his argument against the guest worker system by stating his belief that “No democratic state can tolerate the establishment of a fixed status between citizens and foreigners? Democratic citizens, then, have a choice if they want to bring in new workers, they must be prepared to enlarge their own membership” (p.61). The reason Walzer adds this is, in my opinion, to offer a chance for the citizens of the countries which host guest workers to choose to either get rid of the system, or offer them a chance for citizenship. From Walzer’s standpoint, these are the only viable alternatives.

Through this look at the guest worker system, we have seen how Walzer believes that citizenship should be distributed on a give and take basis, if you are taking, you should be giving. Guest workers are the perfect example because they exist in a country, contributing to its greater good, but receiving little credit, while someone doing less may be getting more, just because of their status of being a citizen. I don’t think Walzer is arguing for a need based system of distribution, for how can one truly need to be a

Jason Pyrz

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political member. In terms of refugees, we may let them emigrate, but they do not necessarily need to become citizens.

Over all, I believe that Walzer’s points are valid when you take into account his reasons for arguing so. From the standpoint of justice, and the minimization of tyranny, Walzer offers many logical arguments. However, the arguments he brings up are mostly too ideological to work. In his hustle to bash the guest worker system, he completely loses sight of one thing, something that he mentions himself at the beginning of his argument. If guest workers are allowed citizenship, then it defeats the entire purpose of having guest workers in the first place, and also sends the problem back to square one. Basically, Walzer could have saved a lot of time (and trees) by just saying that there is no way that a guest worker system could function within its original purpose under his ideal environment of no tyranny. Aside from that, he does make good points about who deserves citizenship, and the guest workers are, in my opinion, deserving of citizenship. However if that does happen, we will have to find another means to end the problem that the system was implemented to end in the first place. To put it very briefly; good arguments, but too idealistic.


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