A Philosopher's Blog

Expatriation & Crito

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2013
Biometric United States passport issued in 2007

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An American citizen can voluntarily renounce his citizenship and a permanent resident can “turn in” her green card—this is known as expatriation. Interestingly, there has been a 33% increase in expatriations since 2011 with a total of 2,369 people doing so as of the third quarter. The main reason for this seems to be for the wealthy to avoid paying American taxes.  This does raise an interesting moral issue.

In the case of permanent residents who turn in their green cards, this would seem to clearly be morally acceptable. After all, being a permanent resident and not a citizen is most likely a matter of convenience or advantage for the person in question. As such, they would seem to have no special moral obligation to the United States. To use an analogy, if I rent a house from a family, this creates no special obligation to that family beyond paying my rent and taking reasonable care of their property. If I wish to end my tenancy and move somewhere else, then that would be my right—provided that I settled my debt before leaving.

The case of citizens is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, it can be argued that a person has a moral right to give up his citizenship for any reason. This would seem to apply whether the person received his citizenship by being born a citizen or by being nationalized. A person who was born a citizen did not chose to be a citizen and thus would seem to have the right to make that choice as an adult. To use an analogy, a person does not pick his birth family, but he can later elect to not be a part of that family.

A person who decided to be a citizen and then elects to cease to be a citizen would seem to have as much right to make that choice as she did when she decided to become a citizen. To use an analogy, just as a person has a right to enter into a marriage she has a right to leave that marriage.

Another avenue of argumentation is to focus on the right of a person to act in ways that are to her advantage. In the case of the wealthy renouncing their citizenship for tax purposes, it can be contended that they have the right to act in their self-interest and avoiding taxes in this manner is a rational calculation. While they do give up the advantages of being a United States citizen, the tax savings could be well worth it—especially if the wealthy person has little need of the advantages of being a United States citizen or can get comparable advantages by being a citizen of a state that will not tax her to the degree that the United States does. Of course, it is worth noting that the wealthy generally do not suffer under severe tax burdens in the United States and they are generally adept at using the arcane tax laws to their advantage. However, a wealthy person might regard even these taxes as too burdensome relative to the advantages she gains from her citizenship.

On the other hand, renouncing citizenship for the tax advantages seems, at least to me, like an act that is morally dubious. Laying aside the appeals to patriotism and the condemnation of selfishness, I will instead borrow and rework Socrates’ approach in the Crito.

The Crito takes place after Socrates trial (as recounted in the Apology) and involves Socrates addressing the question of whether or not fleeing Athens to avoid death would be unjust. While the matter at hand is not about death, it is a similar matter: would a citizen renouncing his citizenship to avoid taxes be unjust? I believe that it would be and offer the following argument (stolen from Socrates).

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that the citizen was not compelled to be or remain a citizen and that the citizen was not tricked into being or remaining a citizen. That is, the citizen was not trapped by fraud or force. A person who is forced or tricked would have a legitimate claim to renouncing such a compulsive or fraudulent relationship.

A person who was born a citizen or became a citizen enjoyed the advantages of being a citizen. The person very likely was educated by the country (by the public school system). Even if the person did not receive a public education, she did receive the protection and goods of citizenship. If the person is renouncing her citizenship solely for tax reasons, this would indicate that she does not have a profound disagreement with American values or the other aspects of citizenship. As such, the person would be renouncing her citizenship solely for the financial advantage. This would seem to be unjust—to repay the country by renouncing her for the sake of money. To use an analogy, this would similar to a person renouncing membership in the family that raised and took care of her because now her parents are old and require the support they once gave their child. This would seem to be an act of profound ingratitude and shameful in its base selfishness.

The obvious counter to this is to contend that the relationship between the citizen and the state is not analogous to that of a family or even a community. Rather the relationship is one defined purely in terms of self-interest and assessed in terms of the advantages and disadvantages to the individual. On this view, a person would ask not what he can do for his country. Rather, his question would be to ask what his country can do for him. And if it is not doing enough, then he should end that relationship.

Taking this view does come with a price: it must be applied consistently to all relationships to the state. For example, a citizen who sells secrets to another country or merely leaks them because he sees it as being to his advantage cannot be accused of a betrayal. After all, he is doing what the wealthy renouncers are doing: acting for his own advantage. As another example, to expect citizens to make sacrifices by serving the country would be an unreasonable expectation. Citizens should only do what is to their advantage and be properly compensated for this. In short, this view is that the relationship between citizen and country is a business one and that a citizen is essentially a customer. Interestingly enough, some people want to have it both ways: using the idea of nationalism when it is to their advantage and treating citizenship as a business relationship when doing so is to their advantage.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 18, 2013 at 8:34 am

    “After God, man is chiefly indebted to his parents and to his country; and, therefore, just as religion must render worship to God, so, to a lesser degree, piety must pay honor to parents and to country.” ~ Thomas Aquinas

    Source: Christianity and Love of Country – http://wp.me/pPnn7-1kb

  2. TJB said, on November 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

    What about people who leave their countries and come to the US for economic advantage? Do the same arguments apply to them?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2013 at 11:37 am

      Yes, just swap out the United States for the country in question. Note the fraud/force thing that I included-so fleeing from an oppressive state is another matter. It is also worth considering the distinction between leaving a country in which a person has little or no opportunity and renouncing citizenship to avoid paying taxes. So, someone who leave Mexico because he has no chance of getting a job there is rather different from a millionaire renouncing his citizenship to pay less in taxes. One is like a person leaving a failed marriage, the other is like someone bailing on a marriage because he is just tired of contributing to the expenses.

      • WTP said, on November 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm

        Or perhaps like a marriage where one spouse earns all the f’n money, pays the mortgage, the maintenance, the phone, the electric, the water, the security alarm and the other spouse is an ingrate who pisses and moans because her allowance has been cut due to her surly attitude. But I see what you’re saying.

  3. magus71 said, on November 18, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Funny. Liberals eschew American nationalism. But when the rich leave, the liberals wave our flag.

    • WTP said, on November 18, 2013 at 11:30 am

      Patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel. Or so said a man who equated dissent with being a traitor.

      What has been will be again,
      what has been done will be done again;
      there is nothing new under the sun.

    • T. J. Babson said, on November 18, 2013 at 11:54 am

      Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.

      –Groucho Marx

  4. WTP said, on November 18, 2013 at 9:47 am

    More fallacies and stupidity in this essay than I can shake a stick at. And to think that when I was younger I used to marvel at how people in other countries could surrender their freedoms. To think that the state somehow OWNS you. Wasn’t this the very “argument” the Berlin Wall was built on?

    The road to serfdom is being paved by philosophy professors from Ohio State and beyond. This is the problem, right here. This Animal Farm mentality. And we subsidize it with our tax dollars. So what is the difference between Mike’s argument here and a bucket of crap?

  5. magus71 said, on November 18, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    Why not make America a tax haven?

  6. magus71 said, on November 18, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    Liberals are like dogs returning to their vomit. Socialism keeps failing, and in new ways even. But back to it they go.

    • WTP said, on November 18, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      But if they keep changing what they call socialism, it’s not socialism. Mike and fellow travelers are not socialists. Just ask them.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 18, 2013 at 11:09 pm

        Mike has an amazingly narrow definition of socialism. If the government doesn’t own the means of production, according to Mike, it can’t be socialism.

        • WTP said, on November 19, 2013 at 12:13 am

          That and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge that controlling the means of production while it is “owned” by cronies isn’t socialism. Nor his repeated positions equating profit with theft. Mike is a socialist. And not the socialist-light kind you’ve suggested. No doubt about it in my book. Familiar with the term “bearded Marxist”?

        • magus71 said, on November 19, 2013 at 6:11 am

          I would argue that there are many ways the government can own production: Taxation, regulation, laws that enable it to seize property, fines, preferential subsidizing, and the redistribution of the wealth produced by those who produce. It is actually a simpler thing for socialism to exist by redistributing wealth after the capitalist creates it than it is for a government to make 5 year plans and attempt to run a centrally controlled national business.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2013 at 11:43 am

            You are describing the functions of the state-by your account, all functioning states own production and are socialist. This would make the term rather useless.

            • magus71 said, on November 19, 2013 at 2:53 pm

              I did not say that by doing any of those things, a government becomes socialist. It is the scale in which they are done. The only difference between medicine and poison is often the dose. Those who admit they are socialists in Britain only wish to redistribute wealth, they do not wish to own the means of production. I’m only going by what the admitted socialists say they want.

              But you would admit that if the government taxes your business enough, it could become the defacto owner of the profits, right?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2013 at 3:07 pm

              The tax rate is not what typically defines socialism, but the extent to which the state owns the means of production-at least on the classic definition.

            • WTP said, on November 19, 2013 at 3:35 pm

              Riiiight…So the state could tax 100% of the profits, take no responsibility for the losses, and not be socialist so long as they never took ownership of the company. This is just playing games with words in complete ignorance as to what the real world consequences are.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2013 at 11:40 am

          That is what socialism is, which makes for a clear definition. Now, we can talk about varying degrees of collective matters and, if you’d like, we can dub such things “socialism.” Unfortunately, people throw around “socialism” without being clear in what they actually mean by the term.

          • WTP said, on November 19, 2013 at 1:36 pm

            Because socialism is like a light switch. It’s either on or off. There’s no granularity. By this definition, and by playing cute games with language, a state could set up a puppet corporate trust that is “owned” by non-government entities (i.e. The People) yet not controlled by them. So what does the word “own” mean? It’s all semantics for sophists.

  7. magus71 said, on November 18, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    • magus71 said, on November 18, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      So long as the gap between rich and poor is smaller, it doesn’t matter to the libs that both rich and poor are poorer.

  8. T. J. Babson said, on November 18, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    Just as an aside. A lot of times lefties will write “gubment” in their comments. I think this is a good example of bigotry. What do you guys think?

    • WTP said, on November 19, 2013 at 12:09 am

      My buddy from Arkysaws says that a lot. He’s become quite the lefty, but I always took that to be a riff on the vernacular from Arkysaws. Kinda like saying Arkysaws. To me it’s a slap at gubment, but with the way lefties weasel and squirm and abuse language (again, see Orwell), I’m not sure wtf the point is. Wouldn’t surprise me if they confuse each other.

    • magus71 said, on November 19, 2013 at 6:22 am

      I myself have used that term. I do not attach it to race but to a mindset, a mindset that assumes government can or should provide everything for us. Like the vid you posted that showed black students stating that Obamacare “took money from blacks and gave it to whites.” The assumption was that it should have been the other way around; that’s what a “good” government does, give money to black folk.

      Gubment is a term used by me to highlight the uneducated voters that got Obama elected. Like these people:

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2013 at 11:41 am

      I thought “gubment” was also a right wing thing as well?

      • magus71 said, on November 19, 2013 at 2:54 pm

        It is, as I admitted above.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 19, 2013 at 4:15 pm

        So it is not just used to imply someone is a hillbilly?

        • magus71 said, on November 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm

          I don’t think so. I’d say it’s used mostly to represent the person who has an over-simplified view of what government is. Like a person who basically believes the government is a giant candy machine.

        • WTP said, on November 19, 2013 at 11:43 pm

          Perhaps this is all a manifestation of Poe’s Law?


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