Duty Free Citizenship: The Case of Peter Thiel

14 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2019

Date Written: November 28, 2019


Two meanings of the word ‘duty’ are relevant to this paper. The first denotes a tax typically payable when goods are moved across borders. If movement of things, such as artworks, between countries is duty free because they remain in free ports, the host jurisdictions confer an extraordinary financial privilege on the typically super-wealthy owners of the artworks. Objects concealed in free ports become detached from their usual use – jewellery is not worn, wine is not consumed and artworks are not viewed, either privately or publicly. Filmmaker and theorist Hito Steyerl, who has analysed duty free art, describes free ports as ‘a luxury no man’s land, tax havens where artworks are shuffled around from one storage room to another once they get traded’. Artworks are commonly a currency of liquid capitalism in which ‘capital itself is now weightless, free of spatial confinement’. Art can be a useful analogy for law, and, as I seek to demonstrate, under certain circumstances, citizenship.

The second meaning of ‘duty’ contemplated in this paper is duty as the reciprocal of a right, and is used here in relation to the bundle of interdependent claims and obligations that constitute citizenship.

These two meanings of duty meet – analogously and factually – in the case of New Zealand’s extraordinary grant of citizenship to the ultra-libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel for whom the normal residency requirements for people applying for the country’s citizenship were waived.

The paper, which is a draft work in progress, is structured as follows: after this Introduction, Part II sketches a plausible model of citizenship, identifies key provisions of New Zealand’s citizenship law, and then extracts salient points from journalist Matt Nippert’s investigation into the Thiel’s citizenship. The aim here is to demonstrate that the grant of citizenship to Thiel is incompatible with traditional theory, policy and law on citizenship, and, indeed, New Zealand’s espoused national values. Part III borrows the terminology of Giorgio Agamben to speculate on the idea of ‘homo sacrissimus’ as a privileged exception to the usual norms of citizenship, and an antithesis to the bare life (la vita nuda) of the non-citizen (homo sacer). Conclusions are then drawn.

Suggested Citation

Barrett, Jonathan M., Duty Free Citizenship: The Case of Peter Thiel (November 28, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3494881 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3494881

Jonathan M. Barrett (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington 6140
New Zealand

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