Sunday, November 30, 2014

Citizenship For Sale

Are there things that money shouldn't be able to buy? In an age when the 'wisdom of the market' is an orthodoxy embraced by many, it is a question that the neoconservative agenda would suggest borders on heresy.

Yet that is precisely the question economist Michael J. Sandel poses in his compelling and thought-provoking book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, which I recently read. Written in very accessible language, it's thesis is that while market principles can work very well in many areas of our society, the increasing reach of those principles into regions once deemed off-limits has an unfortunate side effect of promoting either unfairness or debasement of a value/principle that he characterizes as corruption. In many cases, it has both effects.

One quick example before I come to my purpose for writing today. If a person in India sells one of his kidneys to a person able to pay (likely someone in the first world), market principles would say that because both parties benefit, the deal is a good and efficient one. The donor chooses to sell an organ for money he would not otherwise have, and the recipient gets a new lease on life.

However, closer examination of the transaction reveals something very troubling. The deal is not between two equals. The donor is poor and thus unfairly placed in the position of selling due to his need for the money. The one willing and able to pay for the kidney is therefore exploiting that need, so there is, whether openly acknowledged or not, an element of coercion involved in the transaction.

The second element that makes this disquieting is the fact that it debases people by reducing them to mere commodities, in this case a source of organs.

Sandel provides a wealth of examples in his book, ranging from naming rights, to education, to the arts, to sports, queue-jumping, death insurance, etc.

In all of this, Canada's hands are not clean. Citizenship, once thought to be the reward at the end of a long process, is for sale:
The Canadian government is poised to relaunch a program that grants permanent residency to foreign millionaires but a veteran immigration lawyer says he fears Ottawa is still underpricing what amounts to a path to citizenship.

Ottawa announced in February it would end the decades-old Immigrant Investor Program, saying the $800,000 investment required of newcomers, as well as other conditions, “significantly undervalued Canadian permanent residence.”
The language of the article suggests that the commodification, unfairness and debasement of which Sandel writes is rife in the government's approach:
Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based lawyer with decades of experience in the field, said he expects an announcement from Immigration Minister Chris Alexander within two weeks and predicts the minimum investment required under the revamped program will be about $1.5-million.

He suggests Canada aim much higher, starting at the $2-million level. From there, he recommends Ottawa experiment with trying to raise the required cash outlay to even greater heights.

“One-and-a-half million dollars? What is that? A condo and a half in Shanghai?” Mr. Kurland said. “Ratchet it up to $2.5-million to $3-million for investment and wait to see if over a five-month period, six-month period, there are still some empty spaces on the board.”
Sadly, this mentality is not confined to Conservatives:
Former immigration minister Sergio Marchi said he thinks Canada should set the required investment at $1.5-million, and not higher, to remain competitive with the roughly 20 other countries that offer similar programs in exchange for permanent residency or citizenship.
Citizenship as competition, eh? Doesn't sound very Canadian to me.

And while a high price tag is being affixed to becoming Canadian, it would seem that its value is going down.

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