Let’s say that you have an enthusiasm for golf, tennis, or dining out but live in an area in which the necessary facilities are available exclusively on a membership basis in private clubs. Assume also that any very extended exclusion from these activities leaves you bored, dejected, morose. In these circumstances, and on the added assumption that you and your intimates lack the resources to build and maintain your own course or court, hire your own chef, etc., membership in the requisite organizations or associations will be of great importance to you. Whereas friends with other avocations are indifferent to the rights and privileges of these memberships, for you they will be a matter of concern, perhaps quite intensely so.

Consider an importantly different circumstance. You live in a “company town” (such as late 19th-century Pullman, Illinois), in a region dominated by a single industry, firm, or trade union (such as Akron, Ohio), or in a self-conscious and well-organized ethnic group or religious confession (as in the Mormon communities in Utah), where employment opportunities, qualified medical services, schools, shopping and service facilities, perhaps even dependable fire and security protections are reliably available only to those who have definite and stable standing with the local hegemon. In this circumstance, status or eligibility, rather than being a matter of gratifications and enjoyments or their absence, is a condition necessary to the satisfaction of your most basic interests and needs. The question whether you can or cannot obtain and sustain such standing will be second in importance to few others.

In the cases I have imagined, membership takes its importance primarily from the direct connection between it and access to valued goods, services, and opportunities. The rights, privileges, and immunities that come with it are to states of affairs that are valued for their own sake. If I could assure myself of these desired states of affairs by means other than membership, and if it were more convenient or less costly to do so, membership would have little or no value to me. Equally, if the associations or groups ceased to provide the goods or services, or began to provide them at a substantially reduced level of quality or convenience, I might well discontinue my membership.

Before turning to the distinctive form of membership called citizenship, consider cases (which might overlap or coincide with those discussed thus far) in which membership is valued less for the opportunities it affords or the needs it meets than for the human interactions and relationships that develop because of or as a part of it. There are plenty of good restaurants in town and a trial visit suffices to show that the food at the Elks Club is lousy. My wife and I nevertheless seek membership in the club because we are keen to meet new people. We continue our membership long after we have satisfied this urge because of an emotional linkage between the club and friendships formed there. Similarly, “The recently opened municipal golf course is cheaper and better maintained than my private club but the rest of my foursome wants to play at the club so. . . . ” “I now think that the doctrines of the church are superstitious nonsense but my dear friends Judy and Ralph would be dismayed if I stopped attending services and so. . . . ” “My union (political party, Ku Klux Clan chapter, gay rights group) has become hopelessly ineffective in promoting my interests and protecting my rights, but I wouldn’t give up my comradely relations for the world.” “If asked to betray my country (my church, union, university, political party) to save my friends, I hope I would have the decency and courage to do it.”

All of the above ways of thinking have been transferred to the form of membership called citizenship in “the state” and offered as reasons for elevating citizenship to a position of special privilege. As to the first or gratification model, eudaemonists and hedonistic utilitarians from Plato and Aristotle to Bentham, despite disagreeing radically as to the nature of pleasure, have sung the praises of politically organized association as the chief source of human happiness. Hegel, Bradley, Lenin, and the democratic socialists and welfare liberals of our own time, despite much scorn for one another’s conceptions of the true human interests, needs, or ends have adapted the second or need and interest model to political theory. They have trumpeted the refrain that human needs and interests can be satisfied, met, and achieved only where there is a powerful state that controls much of the activity of its members and only if the latter identify themselves as citizens and faithfully perform the duties of that station.

Most astonishingly of all, numerous thinkers and publicists maintain that the state is the chief locus of, and citizenship the chief means to, intensely personal and effective relationships such as community, fraternity, and even friendship. The third or affective relationship model informs the thinking of Catholic conservatives of the bent of Joseph de Maistre and more than a few of our self-styled contemporary conservatives; of Rousseau and his democratic participationist followers; of Romantic nationalists such as Mazzini and present-day promoters of patriotism; of numerous contemporary communitarians; all of these, although disagreeing sharply in their conceptions of friendship, community, fraternity, and the virtues necessary to them, agree that organized, authority-laden political association is essential to the cultivation of these intimate and exclusive relationships. In the absence of a politically organized society populated by an engaged and faithful citizenry, human beings wallow in egoism, selfishness, and discord; sink into anomie, alienation, and ressentiment.

These three understandings and estimations of citizenship are absurdly exaggerated and otherwise regrettable. The pleasures afforded by associations such as those invoked in my first image depend vitally on a condition that state membership can satisfy little if at all, namely the voluntary and selective character of membership in them. This is yet more emphatically the case with the attachments and affections at issue in my third image. It is possible for friendship and even love to develop among people who are compelled to associate with one another. In any but the rawest sense of causality, when this occurs it is despite, not because of, the compulsory character of the relationship. And the idea that I could or should cultivate such feelings for the millions of people who are held together in even the smallest of the “modern states” is not only absurd but—when it becomes us-against-them patriotism and jingoistic nationalism—dangerous absurdity.

Constrained government, prudently conducted under the wary eyes of a citizenry jealous of its private, personal, and associational pursuits and prerogatives, can decrease somewhat the cruder threats to happiness and friendship, may offer relief from the effects of unavoidable disasters, and may ameliorate material and other conditions adverse to these vital aspects of human well-being. Neither government itself nor participation in the politics that takes its life primarily from the scuffle for governmental power can themselves bring about or sustain these rare and rightly treasured conditions and achievements. Far more often than not, the state, perhaps especially states emboldened and energized by the participation of persons whose primary identification is that of citizen, has proven to be the antagonist of pleasure and happiness, of fraternity and friendship.

It is not open to us to disdain the distinctive form of membership that is citizenship. If we make the hegemon of the second or need and interest image into a state, furnish it with authority and with power sufficient to enforce its municipal laws and commands against disobedience, then that image depicts a salient feature of the circumstances of all those likely to read this essay. If it is a dangerous fantasy to think of the state as supplying the desiderata at issue in my first and third images; it is regrettable but undeniable that numerous of the presently existing states control resources that are necessary to satisfying basic needs and interests of their citizens. So long as this continues to be the case, those without standing with or before the state are in a dangerously exposed position. It is true and admirable that some states afford protections and other services to legally and”even illegally resident aliens. Notoriously, however, these policies are at their least reliable in respect to that hapless denizen of the modern world, the “stateless” person. And because no state accords aliens formal rights of participation in the processes by which such policies are adopted and implemented, the benefits aliens receive are largely at the sufferance of persons other than themselves. For these reasons, disdain for or indifference to citizenship is reckless imprudence.

As elements of my need and interest image are intended to convey, there are other and better reasons for valuing citizenship. The best of these reasons, articulated in a tradition of thinking running from Montaigne and Hobbes to contemporary thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin and especially Michael Oakeshott, are responses to the anything but pretty history of company towns, exclusive ethnic and religious communities, and the like. That history is of course one of intolerance—the intolerance found in virtually all human communities. But it is also a history of “official” punishment of deviation, dissent, and even mere difference. Insofar as there are offices of formal authority and collective power, those who occupy them, rather than using their positions to protect and defend the unorthodox and unpopular, take the lead in repressing them. (If we need reminding of these ugly facts, and it seems that we do, current reports from what was Yugoslavia, what is Turkey and Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, will serve the purpose.)

Let us consider a fourth image or model, one that might be called civil. In its most estimable formulations, the idea of political association, and of citizenship as the form of membership in such an association, is the idea of an association that encompasses a fluctuating plurality of economic enterprises, ascriptively defined groups, religious confessions and the like; it is the idea of a form of membership that is available to all who choose, even intermittently, to live their lives in that association. Most importantly but elusively, it is the idea of an association that in certain basic respects stands for and will stand by its citizens as such, without regard to the further characteristics that distinguish them from and put them at odds with one another.

On this understanding—never fully realized but discernible at moments in English history and the history of some American states—citizenship is of fundamental importance, is beyond all price. The reasons for its value, however, are quite different than those I have for the most part been discussing. The authority and power of the political association, and the standing of the citizen in such an association, are viewed primarily as sources of protections supplemental to those that individuals and groups are able to afford to themselves. Given the existence of a number of such politically organized societies in the world, these protections are now importantly against incursions by states other than one’s own. But if we ask why there should be political associations at all such that the problem of relations among them arises, we see that the protections they are to afford are first and foremost against the intrusive and oppressive demands of the less-encompassing groups and associations of which the political association, once formed, partly consists.

On this civil view, citizenship is valued fundamentally because it assures, insofar as can be, that these further protections will actually be afforded. Those who seek additional rights and privileges, including the right to participate in the processes by which rights are established and protections provided, do so primarily in order to maximize the likelihood that they and others actually receive the protections that it is the chief purpose of the association to provide.

Such an association may also provide its citizens with further services and opportunities. If proposals to do so are widely and genuinely supported, the state may gather and deploy resources of the society in order to pursue purposes that are shared among its citizens. And to the extent that such projects come to be proposed and entertained, the value of the right to participate in decisions concerning them may be estimated yet more highly than I previously suggested.

On the civil understanding, however, this extension of the argument for citizenship will be recognized as dangerous, as jeopardizing what is distinctively important about this form of membership. Citizens will be wary of such proposals and even of the kind of thinking about citizenship that highlight the right to participate in decisions concerning such proposals. They will recognize that collective ventures tend to deflect them from their own most highly valued personal and group pursuits at the same time that they divert the political association from its most important duties. They will fear that adopting and pursuing such projects will enlarge the authority and enhance the power of the political association, might well make it into a threat greater than those it is meant to combat.

If inspired by or modeled on the gratification or affective relationship understandings, especially if informed by some combination of the two, citizenship is likely to be an object of enthusiasm and affection. Those who hold citizenship are likely to approach its duties as well as its rights with zeal, to accord pride of place to the activities it involves. They will look to it for, identify it with, their most intense pleasures and enjoyments, their warmest affections and strongest attachments. And because there is no such thing as citizenship apart from a state, because citizenship is an office in or of the state, these affections and enthusiasms are likely to transfer to the state itself. The state will be magnified and energized by the affirmative attitudes of its citizens toward it and its activities. If modeled on need and interest, citizenship may be viewed less warmly but yet more intensely. Thinking about it may take on a certain almost desperate quality.

Through much of its history, the pronounced tendency of these three kinds of thinking about citizenship has been circumscribed and to some extent countered by a concomitant view, one that goes quite easily with such thinking but that has (with one increasingly salient qualification) now been largely abandoned. Those who have placed a high estimation on citizenship have for the most part thought that only a small part of the population of any society is eligible for it. Just as those who place a high value on a club, vocational, or fraternal association typically establish selective criteria and procedures for membership in it, so most theorists and practitioners of citizenship have reserved that status to those—usually few—human beings who they have judged deserving of its privileges and capable of discharging the demanding duties that it entails. This practice denied the benefits of citizenship to many people. But it also meant that the energies of the latter were less readily available to the state, were often directed against the state. In a curious and perhaps unintended way, this feature of thinking about citizenship diminished dangers implicit in it.

In countries in which citizenship is a meaningful concept and status, such selectivity and restrictiveness has for the most part ended in regard to the native born of society. Countries such as the United States, while increasingly restrictive of immigration, routinely extend the rights and duties of citizenship to the great preponderance of their residents. And because thinking about citizenship is for the most part on the gratification and need and interest models, the political activities and energies of this great throng are put largely to the purpose of demanding that the state provide them pleasures and meet their interests and needs. (The affective relationship model makes its, almost always ugly, appearance primarily in the context of radically “we-they” thinking such as Americans versus foreigners or “true Americans” versus those “un-American” types who are but shouldn’t be of our company.)

Although hardly the only cause or support of the gargantuan and immensely dangerous states under the thrall of which we live, these ways of thinking about citizenship have done and continue to do their lamentable part in engendering and sustaining state power. But they have not yielded the satisfactions that were falsely promised on their behalf. As with subscribers who have been severely disappointed by an enterprise association or fraternal order in which they have invested great hopes, citizens of contemporary states are disillusioned and embittered. Their demands on the state continue unabated, and they are all too ready in their acquiescence to its most barbarous domestic and foreign adventures. But they have little enthusiasm and diminishing aptitudes for those demanding modes of thought and action that citizenship requires.

There is no sovereign remedy for this cheerless state of affairs. A step toward ameliorating it would be to revive and promote the civil mode of thinking about citizenship and political association. On this view, government and politics, and the standing of the citizen in relation to them, are indispensable to us. They are, moreover, indispensable because of characteristics of human beings and their circumstances that we may partly regret but that we would not want to be without, characteristics such as individuality and individual willfulness, diversity and disagreement, competition and conflict. Absent these qualities, human life would be lacking in the uncertainties and challenges that are essential to zest, savor, and a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. Given these qualities, human beings need to contrive and endeavor to sustain arrangements that support and enhance individuality, plurality, and freedom by containing the destructive forces that individuality, plurality, and freedom themselves generate and release. Properly understood, political association and citizenship can and occasionally have contributed to maintaining the always delicate balance among these desirabilities. They do so only when the temptations I have discussed are resisted, only when cives realize that citizenship, as Michael Oakeshott has argued, “calls for so exact a focus of attention and so uncommon a self-restraint” that we cannot be “astonished to find this mode of relationship to be as rare as it is excellent.”