Suppose a child is born. In the entire world, that person will inherit his parent's nationality, hence, becoming citizen of a certain country. (Or two countries, in specific cases.)

That means that he or she will be subject, with due age limitations, to his/her country's laws and regulations, and will be forced to live by them and obey such code.

However, what is it that gives a country the right to declare such form of control, or ownership, of a newborn person? Although his or her parents could have freely decided to become members of a certain nation, to what extent is the country legitimized in extending its authority over the newborn?

  • I think to analyze this question, we should first understand the meaning of force or determinism vs. free-will or Libertarianism. Therefore the question could be, when a newborn baby would acquire free-will? Jul 19, 2011 at 19:08
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    @Saeed Neamati - Good question, when is it that a newborn acquires free will? Doesn't he or she have free will when he/she demands food a few hours after birth, cries for a toy at the age of two or hides a bad grade at that of eight? Yet, we do not consider them adults. But even if a newborn did not have free will, or did not have proper means to express it, is a state still justified in claiming authority of such person? Is the state justified in doing so just because the person cannot "defend" him/herself?
    – max0005
    Jul 19, 2011 at 19:21
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    @Max0005 - There are clearly some questions that could be philosphical in this realm. But the question as stated is clearly political rather than philosophical. Define this narrowly as a philosophy question and I will revise.
    – Chad
    Jul 19, 2011 at 21:07
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    Minor nitpick: I'm not sure if it is true for "the entire world" that a person will inherit his parent's nationality. I know that when I was born in Germany (the law has since changed there), your father had to be a German citizen for you to be born a German citizen. This law was presumably a backlash against many American servicemen having children with German women. Your claim might be true, but I suspect there are still exceptions. Jul 20, 2011 at 10:41
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    Even though the subject matter is fascinating, I find the wording of this question tendentious, fancy kind of "It's not fair". People in general don't have the resources to move as they please from country to country, and the respective countries don't have the resources to allow it unconstrained. Nobody 'owns' anybody, but they do have power over one another and though not particularly pleasant sometimes, limited resources makes it insurmountable. That is, it is of course legitimate for parents/tribe/country to have control/sovereignty over a newborn. Who else?
    – Mitch
    Jul 29, 2011 at 14:23

5 Answers 5


The primary philosophical justification for this in governmental or political terms is social contract theory. Essentially, social contract theory is the viewpoint that both a person's moral and political obligations derive from an agreement that they have made (implicitly or explicitly) with their society (or government). Social contract theorists argue that this type of agreement is vital to forming a society, and in fact, much of modern Western moral and political theory is derived out of the work of the famous triumvirate of social contract theorists: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

There are various justifications for this theory, depending on which of the three social contractarians you choose to read. But most of them agree that humans abandoned the natural state (where all beings were completely free to do as they liked) in order to enter into an ordered society that revokes some of their natural liberties in order to provide them with collective benefits such as security and protection. The fundamental idea is essentially that the rights required to be given up have less net desirability than those rights that can only be ensured and protected by a government or society.

Now, you might argue, that this is all well and good for the parents of that child, but what of the child itself? It clearly isn't old enough at the time that it is born to have agreed to comply with any type of contract, social or otherwise. You seem to be driving at exactly this argument when you say:

Although his or her parents could have freely decided to become members of a certain nation, to what extent is the country legitimized in extending its authority over the newborn?

Well, the answer is a fairly simple one, and certainly one that the social contract theorists anticipated. There have been only very few instances in which human beings have actually gotten together and signed a written contract—in keeping with the relatively Western nature of this philosophy, the Magna Carta is often cited as the canonical example. In the rest of cases, indeed the majority of cases, the consent to this social contract is assumed to be implicit, or tacit.

The argument usually goes something like this: By virtue of choosing to remain in the territory which is under a particular social contract, the individual has tacitly given consent to be governed by that society and therefore give up his/her individual rights as required to gain the larger benefits of that society. In fact, the argument goes, this tacit consent (the ability of people to "vote with their feet") is what gives the government its legitimacy.

To answer your question more specifically, I'll focus on the writings of John Locke, arguably the most influential and widely-known of the social contract theorists.

Locke says that simply walking along the roads of a particular jurisdiction is tantamount to tacit, or implied, consent to the laws of that government. A person agrees to obey the laws of a society while it is living within the territory of that society. He says that this explains why resident aliens are obligated to obey the laws of whatever state in which they reside, even though they are not naturalized citizens of that society. This obligation no longer holds when they return to their country of origin, but it necessarily attaches while they take up residence in that particular jurisdiction.

And the idea of property ownership (a recurring theme throughout Locke's philosophical views) becomes important here as well. If a person inherits property, then that works to create an even stronger bond between the individual and the commonwealth. The idea is that the original owner of that property agreed to place this property permanently under the jurisdiction of the commonwealth or society, and that by inheriting this property, the inheritor also inherits the obligation to follow the laws of that society.

So when children accept the property of their parents, they also tacitly consent to the jurisdiction of the commonwealth and agree to abide by the rules of the social contract.

For more on this line of thought, I highly recommend picking up a copy of John Locke's seminal work, The Second Treatise of Government. It's a relatively short little book (as these things go), and well worth a read for anyone curious about the nature of governmental sovereignty and implied consent.

  • Oh, I only just read this answer. And it's great. Jul 31, 2011 at 18:02

This is a question of liberty, not philosophical freedom. Philosophical freedom (free will) is the ability to make choices, rather than having your choices made for you by an omnipotent force.

Liberty is still a worthy topic of discussion, however, since it has a lot of tasty ethical problems wound up in it. This discussion is too broad to deal with in any meaningful way, but I'll give you a word: Utilitarianism.

Governments are pretty much all Utilitarian entities. They are allowed to exist because they make sure that the majority of people are allowed to live lives of acceptable utility. If they fail in that duty, they tend to get overthrown. This can be via an election, in a democratic society, or a revolution in an autocratic society. Doesn't really matter.

The take away here, is that the government governs at the sufferance of the plurality of the people. That same plurality is the one that takes away your rights, imposes the privileges, duties, and laws of your society. The existentialists would point out (rightly) that those rules are falsely internalized by most people, and given the status of natural law ("Thou shalt pay thine taxes"), but the simple fact remains: if you choose not to be so bound, society will quickly bind your ass, one way, or the other.


Though I mostly agree with Cody's answer, I wish to answer from different perspectives.

a) Self-preservation: A nation is somewhat like a living entity. As the existing population of a nation is destined to grow old and die, a nation requires an increase in younger population to ensure it's survival in the future. So, a nation more or less chooses it's survival over the rights of the children (and the adults as well).

b) Rights/Expectations of older people: A member of the population expects some compensation in his older years (e.g. an old age home, health care etc.) For this compensation to be delivered, a younger population must be ready to bear the cost for this (just like the european nations).

For both these reasons, it's essential for the nation to replace its elderly population by younger people. Now, it could be argued that this could be done after a person reaches a certain age by giving everybody a choice on whether or not to join a state. (say 18, though this question/answer shows how totally unjustified that age is). However, that raises two issues:

a) Should the state spend resources on those below the age of 18 without some sort of compensation? b) Should the state try to maximise the number of people joining, and if yes, how?

Even if a) is ignored, most nations would find it pretty convenient to set up things so that as few people reject the nation as possible. The best way to do is to "enslave" them from childhood.

Furthermore, the Asch conformity experiments show that the presence of even a small minority can lead to drastic drops in conformity. So, I am not sure whether a nation can really afford to give it's children the choice of rejection.

Of course, other reasons along the lines of psychology, economics etc. can be provided too.


The premise of this question is misleading. It is an overbroad generalization that countries are seeking legitimization by declaring children born in their country as citizens. The child is subject of the laws of the land in which he resides unless he is considered part of a diplomatic delegation. A French child in the US is subject to US laws. A US Child in France is subject to Frnech law.

Citizenship conveys rights to an individual. Governments impose laws over an area in which they claim jurisdiction. Anyone inside that jurisdiction is required to abide by the laws of that government. Failure to do so results in penalties. Citizenship conveys rights, often to work, own property, vote, etc. Many governments even go so far as to provide protection and assistance to their citizens while traveling abroad. Most countries control who can come in to their country, rather than who can leave. In addition most countries allow for you to renounce your citizenship if you desire. While there are oppressive realms that refuse this most free countries find this as a sign of weakness not strength and deligitimizes rather than legitimizing it.

As for the rights of children, the child has the same rights. The power to exercise them simply belongs to their guardian (Usually parent). This is because as children we are sometimes unable to make rational decisions. We grant children the right to make mistakes and not have it held against them in the future. So a rash decision by a 10 year old to renounce his citizenship does not mean he has to move away from his family.

  • All very true, but isn't really an answer to this specific question.
    – apoorv020
    Jul 26, 2011 at 16:49
  • You mean you do not like that I argued that the question is invalid as an answer?
    – Chad
    Jul 26, 2011 at 16:54
  • Can you make it clearer in that case? My basic objection is that all you said typically allows to adults, while children cannot enjoy these rights. Furthermore, though theoretically there is a choice, I do not agree it is a practical choice for most people. (Just like North korea is theoretically a democracy but practically not)
    – apoorv020
    Jul 26, 2011 at 17:16
  • @apoorv020 - There are consequenses to actions. But, as I pointed out in my final sentence, refusal to allow this, even effectively as in North Korea, deligitimizes rather than legitimizing the nation.
    – Chad
    Jul 26, 2011 at 18:07

Interesting theoretical answers aside, there is no such thing as "rights" or "entitlements" -- not really.

Anyways, I think you've got the ownership relationship backwards -- or at least, it's not clearly a one-way relationship. The country gets nothing -- no profit -- for "owning" the newborn. The newborn is a drain on resources, not a contributor. Sometime near when the newborn is able to become a contributor (on the balance, giving more than they take), they are also able to change countries. Countries, in your general "everyone does this" sense, don't stop people from leaving.

Some (not all) countries will force membership or service on their members. In that case, what gives the country the "right" to do that is that they possess overwhelming force (a.k.a., law of the jungle). If you want to claim they are wrong (in any meaningful way -- i.e., set the member free), you have to somehow tip the odds int he member's favor. Usually, we do this through coercive tactics -- physical force, economic sanctions, etc.

Some members can become contributors before they are able to change countries. In that case, the country profits from the member, but the member also profits from the country in terms of having a place to survive. In this way, they "own" each other.

Some countries use child-labor -- that seems most like the "ownership" you're talking about. What gives them the "right" is simply their ability to assert and maintain control.

Anyway, in terms of "rights", if you mean "how is it morally right", then you've got a big problem in coming-up with a moral system that everyone should adhere to. The problem isn't so much getting them to adhere to it -- but rather, doing it without coercion. Otherwise, what gives YOU the right...it will be hard to explain.

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