Bryan Caplan  

How Many Americans Could Pass the Citizenship Test?

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Should you have to pass a test to be allowed to vote? People tend to freak out when I sympathetically consider this possibility. It not fair! Who would write the test? Wouldn't it be discriminatory?!

The funny thing is that we already have such a test - for immigrants. You don't need to pass the citizenship test to get a green card; but if you want the right to vote, you need to answer 60% of the questions correctly. And unlike this sample test, the actal test is not multiple choice. (For more questions, go to page 60 of this Guide to Naturalization).

I bet that at least half of Americans would fail this test if you gave it to them today. I'd further bet that if you had to pass the test to vote, most of the people who initially failed wouldn't be willing to hit the books to get a second chance. Our civic religion may say that the "right to vote is our most precious right," but few people literally believe it. And it's a good thing, too.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Blackadder writes:

Interesting. Assuming that immigrant citizens are better informed about how our political system works, how does this fact affect their voting behavior? Do immigrant citizens support better policies than native born citizens? My guess is that as a general rule the answer is no (support for immigration is probably an exception, but even there I wouldn't be surprised if immigrant citizens were depressingly restrictionist).

Steve writes:

"I personally believe, that U.S. Americans,
are unable to do so,
because uh,
some, people out there, in our nation don’t have maps."

I'd be willing to bet that well under half could pass.

I wrote about this back in 2006 on my blog: http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2006/02/on-citizenship.html

What I am going to propose will undoubtedly be objected to on the basis that it is elitist, exclusionist, and possibly even racist. Well, it is certainly the first two, by my own admission. The fact that something is elitist and exclusionist, and even creating of a new kind of hierarchy, is no argument against something. In fact, for all too long, there have been arguments for too many things on this basis, particularly in the arts, that are in fact elitist. Picasso is not appreciated by the vast majority of people in the world, but only by those properly educated to understand him and appreciate what he did. That makes Picasso an elitist artist – which is no argument either for or against his work.

But this is not an essay on art, but on citizenship, on what citizenship is and should be. Presently, we have an egalitarian view of citizenship – all you have to be is born in the United States, and you are automatically a citizen, with all the freedoms our country recognizes and privileges it bestows. Everyone is automatically a citizen – and as a result, we have a country full of very bad citizens. We do not appreciate those things which we do not earn. An artist who gives his art away will soon discover that his art is not appreciated in the least – the artist who sells his art finds that those who are willing to pay for it appreciate it greatly, and display it proudly and prominently. The same is true of citizenship. Since we get it without earning it, we do not appreciate what we have. The percentage of people who vote – one of the few duties of being a citizen of the United States, a duty which is entirely voluntary – drops each year. It is argued that the reason is due to the lack of worthy men and women to vote for. But rather, it is due to the fact that no one takes seriously something that is not appreciated, something you are born into – the same way a person born into wealth is less likely to appreciate his riches than is someone who earn that wealth during their lifetime, through hard work.

When someone immigrates to the United States, they have to live here for a while, and then take a citizenship test to become a citizen. To pass this test, they have to prove fluency in the language, and a knowledge of both our political system, and our history. But if they were born in this country, they would not have to know any of these things to become a citizen. Some may make the egalitarian argument that we should thus eliminate this requirement for naturalization – but this would be a terrible idea. People should know the language, political system, and history of the country they are a citizen of. That being the case, we should rather require that all residents of the United States pass a citizenship test in order to become a full citizen.
Naturally, this requirement should only be implemented for those who are getting ready to become full citizens: eighteen year olds, who are now of the age to vote. I pick this age precisely because it is the age at which we are first able to vote. We can either allow seniors in high school to take their citizenship test when they turn eighteen, or have them take it toward the end of their senior years, making them eligible, if they pass, to vote in the Fall election, if it is an election year. By passing the citizenship test, they will earn the right to vote, having proven that they know enough about our history and political structures to make educated, intelligent choices. Further, as citizens, they will also have certain duties. But before we discuss those, we need to differentiate between a citizen and a resident, since those who either choose not to take the test, or happen to fail the test, will only remain a resident of the United States, and will not be a citizen.

Under such a system, the resident would not have the right to vote, though they would still have to pay taxes, since they would necessarily be receiving many of the services of the country, such as roads and schools. It is only logical that all residents should be able to receive public education, since all students younger than eighteen are by definition only residents, and cannot be citizens. However, there would be certain services that would not be available to residents, as they would be privileges earned by being a citizen – such things as welfare and food stamps, which are by definition not available to everyone equally anyway (those who make too much money can get neither service). Residents would of course be able to receive any service they pay for, and receive the kinds of government services that are available to everyone equally, such as miliary protection, police protection, and fire department services. However, only citizens could fill these jobs, since only citizens could hold civic jobs.

One of the benefits of only being a resident, however, is that you would not have to fulfill your civic duties as a citizen. With this model of citizenship, the citizen would have to volunteer two years to the state, whether it be in the miliary or what would essentially be a militarized peace corps, in order to fulfill a requirement of the citizen serving his country for a year overseas. There would be a year’s training, followed by a year serving the country in either a miliary or service capacity overseas. The reason for this is that a good citizen should have a broader awareness and understanding of the world, which can only be achieved through experiencing the world in person. Thus, the citizen understand both his own place, and the place of his country, in the world. The citizen would also then be able to see what does, and what does not, work in other countries – and thus be able to take those lessons back to his home country. After this, the citizen would then be required to serve his country for a year at home through policing, the fire department, or social work, to help his fellow citizens and residents. Having fulfilled that civic duty, he would then be free to pursue his own interests, which may include work, college, or even civic careers, such as the military, police work, etc. For fulfilling the duties of the citizen, the citizen would also have the privileges of the citizen, in being able to vote, run for office, or even receive public benefits, should they run into hard times. Things such as unemployment benefits could be done separately, in conjunction with businesses, to help the temporarily unemployed resident.

But what about people who choose not to become a citizen when they are eighteen, but then change their minds when they are, say, seventy? Such a person should still have to fulfill the duties of being a citizen, even if it is in a reduced capacity. The laws should reflect the fact that people of different ages will become citizens, and the requirements should be different for people of different ages and with differing abilities. But this does not change the general idea, that each of these groups of people should nonetheless fulfill some sort of civic duty in order to gain the privileges of citizenship. Retired people can work at soup kitchens.

I am certain there are those who would object that this sounds like the kinds of tests that kept African-Americans from voting in the South prior to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first thing I would note is that this is a completely different time and culture, with completely different attitudes. If we cannot acknowledge that there has been a great deal of change since then, then there is nothing we can discuss rationally, anyway. But more, this is designed to ensure that our schools teach our children how to be good citizens, no matter what those students’ race, creed, or color. And this would be a federal program, since it would allow people to become citizens of the United States, and not of individual states. Thus, the federal government would ensure that the tests are administered freely and fairly. And more, it would allow minority groups to be truly included, as anyone who passed the citizenship test would be a citizen, no matter their race, creed, color, religion, etc. A citizen would have pride of place, they would be the kind of people who have decided that they want to make a civic difference. And they would have earned their place. They would not have been born into it – and thus would not be an aristocracy – but rather, having earned it, they would be part of a meritocracy. Having earned their citizenship, they will have earned the right to complain – but also, they will have taken on the duty to enact change themselves. It will be their civic duty to do so.

Kurbla writes:

If you try to take right for vote, you might see those who left without that right joining, say, Aryan Anarchist Party and exercising their right for revolution against state, capitalism and ruling reptiles. Maybe not going that far, but certainly you harm the stability of the country.

On the other side, you can start seeing that those who have right / privilege to vote start look themselves as well, lets say vanguard and start making always more narrow circles ... sure, the leading guys have to pass the test, say, hm ... being able to describe the role of Xenu in the history of the world ...

So you have kinda danger from the both sides.

You can partly remove the problem by two levels of voting, in one level all voters agree that only voters who pass test X vote in the second circle for real issues. You still have same problems, but to a lesser degree ... and you might really end with better government as well.

I cannot say, however, that it is invalid idea - as it might look; pros and contras should be somehow quantified, and I cannot do that.

But I'm not sure it is pro libertarian idea either. Do you think it is libertarian?

Trieu writes:

Knowing how many stripes there are on the flag, or recalling arcane parts of the Constitution is not a very good test for being a good citizen. This reminds me of the written exam you take when getting a drivers license. I'm sure that a majority of drivers would fail this exam if it were sprung upon them (e.g., How many feet behind a school bus are you supposed to stop?). That doesn't mean they're bad drivers.

Mike writes:

I have long been curious about what the outcome of elections would be if voters were required to take a test before voting and their score determined the weight of their vote.

I recently began working on a web site that will enable visitors to take a test consisting of questions about critical thinking, American government, and the 2008 presidential candidates' respective platforms, before casting their vote for a presidential candidate. The site will compare total votes to votes weighted by test score. The challenge so far, besides finding time to work on the project, has been creating questions that relate to meaningful issues and don't project any impression of bias.

I hope to have the site done by September. Watch this space...

mthomas writes:

I missed the one about naturalization, I think that was expected since I have never looked that up before.

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