Are Citizenship Tests Necessarily Illiberal?


In recent years, many philosophers have argued that it is inherently illiberal to make citizenship for migrants conditional on a test. On these arguments, liberalism itself demands either that no test be administered, or that the test be so easy as to serve merely a symbolic function. In this paper, I make two claims in response to these ideas. The first is that a citizenship test - even a difficult one - is not inherently illiberal, when what is tested for reflects the actual backdrop of knowledge and history required for responsible participation in political discourse. The second is that we have reason to be suspicious of any existing citizenship test, but for reasons of prudence, rather than liberal principle. Existing political elites can be relied upon to make citizenship tests reflect not what is actually required for political agency, but what those elites would like to see reinforced and rein scribed as part of the national identity. Thus, we are right to be wary of citizenship tests - not because liberalism condemns them, but because of predictable moral failures on the part of those charged with writing such tests.

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  1. 1.

    The terminology used varies depending upon country, as does the precise package of rights that are guaranteed by the status. The Canadian government, for instance, uses the term “landed immigrant” to refer to those granted permanent rights of residency, while the United Kingdom uses the concept of indefinite leave to remain. I will use the terminology of “permanent residency” throughout this paper, while acknowledging that the nature and description of such residency may vary depending upon the state in which the residency is granted.

  2. 2.

    We might, for instance, ask whether or not it is permissible for anyone to remain within the category of permanent residency for a significant amount of time. On this, see Helder de Schutter and Lea Ypi, “Mandatory Citizenship for Immigrants,” 45 British Journal of Political Science (2015) 235–251. More often, we ask about the transition between temporary residency and permanent residency. On this, see Joseph Carens, The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013) 45–88.

  3. 3.

    Details on the exam can be found at

  4. 4.

    The United Kingdom, I should note, requires this test prior to the acquisition of indefinite leave to remain – after which full citizenship follows without further testing, after 1 year.

  5. 5.

    For details, see Dan Bilefsky, “Denmark’s Tougher Citizenship Test Stumps Even Its Natives,” New York Times, July 7 2016a.

  6. 6.

    Joseph Carens, The Ethics of Immigration, 61.

  7. 7.

    David Miller, Strangers in our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2016) 139.

  8. 8.

    See, for instance, Alex Sager, “Political rights, republican freedom, and temporary workers,” 17(2) Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (2012) 189–211; Sarah Song, “Democracy and noncitizen voting rights,” 13 Citizenship Studies (2009) 607–620; and Monica Varsanyi, “The rise and fall (and rise?) of non-citizen voting: Immigration and the shifting scales of citizenship and suffrage in the United States,” 9(2) Space and Polity (August 2005) 113–134.

  9. 9.

    See Alfonso Chardy, “Citizenship applications on the rise since Trump’s election,” Miami Herald, May 28 2017.

  10. 10.

    The first version of the ban was signed on Friday, January 27; by Sunday, January 29, the White House said that “legal permanent residents are exempt from the travel restrictions in the new executive order.” A timeline of these events is available at

  11. 11.

    On the former, see Kate Bennhold, “Britain Increasingly Invokes Power to Disown Its Citizens,” New York Times, April 9 2014; on the latter, see Brief of Respondent in Maslenjak v. United States, available at

  12. 12.

    Loren Lomasky and Geoffrey Brennan, “Is There a Duty to Vote?” 17 Social Philosophy and Policy (2000) 62–82. See also Eric Beerbohm, In Our Name: The Ethics of Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2012).

  13. 13.

    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, Rawls 1971) especially 3.1 and 3.2.

  14. 14.

    See Alex Sager, “Political rights, republican freedom, and temporary workers,” 17 Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (2012) 189–211. See more generally Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997).

  15. 15.

    See, for instance, Gerald Rosberg, “Aliens and Equal Protection: Why Not the Right to Vote?” 75(5/6) Michigan Law Review (April – May 1977) 1092–1136.

  16. 16.

    See Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, paperback edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2012); Beerbohm, In Our Name: The Ethics of Democracy.

  17. 17.

    This is also emphasized in Stanley A. Renshon, Noncitizen Voting and American Democracy (New York: Rowman and Littlefield 2009).

  18. 18.

    See, on this, my "Shame, Memory, and the Unspeakable: the International Criminal Court as Damnatio Memoriae," 50 San Diego L. R. (2013) 905-930.

  19. 19.

    Recall William Faulkner’s (often-misquoted) aphorism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Requiem for a Nun (New York: Random House 1951).

  20. 20.

    Sarah Song has emphasized to me that the ability to retake the test is, in itself, potentially a method of demonstrating respect for the prospective citizen; it demonstrates that the incapacity attributed to her is not intrinsic, but one we expect her to be able to change.

  21. 21.

    An anonymous reviewer has noted that we might expect the citizenship test to provide incentive for social integration. This is true; but the argument I make here depends, I think, upon voting involving coercion over others. Social integration, after all, requires the existence of a set of particular people on whom one might rely for social goods; we do not, prior to some additional argument, think that this set must have much in common with the rest of the people in one’s society. Voting, in contrast, seems to necessarily involve the use of power over others – regardless of our social relationships with them. I believe we are more likely to justify citizenship tests with reference to this sort of political relationship, rather than with reference to social or personal ties. I am grateful to the reviewer for urging me to address this point.

  22. 22.

    Carens, 59.

  23. 23.

    Carens, 164–168.

  24. 24.

    Carens, 57–59.

  25. 25.

    Thom Brooks, Becoming British (London: Biteback Publishing 2016).

  26. 26.

    The Liberal Party of Canada is proposing to allow expatriate Canadian citizens to vote in elections. On this, see Christopher Guly, “Canada proposes restoring voting rights for long-term expats,” The Guardian, 24 November 2016.

  27. 27.

    An anonymous reviewer for this journal has noted, in a similar vein, that we might demand courses for those seeking citizenship, without testing those who take these courses. This is, I think, quite true; but it is possible, I think, that the very notion of participation in a course might entail that one is changed by one’s having taken that course. (I might not be thought to have taken a course in Plato, for instance, if I am physically present in the room in which Plato is taught, but never look up from my video game.) The notion of participation, then, might be extended to include some notion of altered ability or knowledge – which, in turn, might give rise to some need for some vision of empirical verification of that ability or knowledge.

  28. 28.

    Thom Brooks, “The British Citizenship Test: The Case for Reform,” 83 The Political Quarterly (2012) 560–566.

  29. 29.

    Text available at

  30. 30.

    Thom Brooks, Becoming British. Brooks notes that the current British tests often involve information that fails short of this ideal; it contains facts that are obscure, facts that are irrelevant, and facts that, being inaccurate, aren’t facts at all.

  31. 31.

    G. K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy,” in his Collected Works, vol. 1 (New York: Ignatius Press 1986) 150.

  32. 32.

    If I am right, of course, it might well have a more impoverished political discourse than one that did test, but that isn’t quite the same thing.

  33. 33.

    Robert Beisner, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press 2009) 215. David Miller, in a similar vein, argues that Muslim migrants to Italy should not be offended by the presence of Christian crosses in the classroom, but should instead regard these as simply part of the cultural heritage of Italy. I am not sure he is wrong; but I am worried that he is unduly willing to interpret what is by definition a sectarian symbol as something civic. We should, at the very least, be open to the thought that Italian Muslims are not wrong to resist the interpretation so offered. Miller, 149.

  34. 34.

    Laura Moser, “How Did a Texas Textbook End Up Describing Slaves as ‘Workers From Africa’?” Slate, October 6 2015. Available at

  35. 35.

    In Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, the British protagonist in the seventeenth Century is confronted with a new Indian import, tea; he quickly condemns it as foreign to the greatness of British tradition. In the twenty-first century, by contrast, the World Wildlife Fund can call something “as British as curry,” and we all understand what they mean. See Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver (New York: Harper Collins 2003). The World Wildlife Federation’s use of this phrase is discussed in Tim Cresswell, Place: An Introduction (New York: Wiley 2014) 188.

  36. 36.

    The Tarnished Golden Door: Civil Rights Issues in Immigration. Report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights 1980, at iii.

  37. 37.

    Dan Bilefsky, “Denmark’s New Front in Debate Over Immigrants: Children’s Lunches,” New York Times, January 20 2016b. Randers is not the only example; French cities have followed suit, removing previously existing vegetarian protein options from school lunch programs.

  38. 38.

    See Jo Shaw, The Transformation of Citizenship in the European Union (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007) 248.

  39. 39.

    Figures from 2010 Census; details available at

  40. 40.

    Indeed, the case of voter identification is an example of what I here discuss; one unaware of the use of such methods for disenfranchisement would be unable to make much sense of the debates now occurring over appropriate identification for voters. Vann R. Newkirk II, “How Voter ID Laws Discriminate,” The Atlantic, February 18 2017.


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Correspondence to Michael Blake.

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I am grateful to Christine Straehle, and two anonymous reviewers for this journal, for their comments and criticisms.

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Blake, M. Are Citizenship Tests Necessarily Illiberal?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 313–329 (2019).

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  • Citizenship
  • Migration
  • Tests
  • Liberalism
  • Justice
  • Differentiation