I was struck by this bit from Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, as soon as I read it. A bit of background. Tesh Vorpatril is visiting the planet of Barrayar and is introduced to its ruler, Emperor Gregor. They are both at Vorkosigan House, the home of Lady Ekaterin Vorkosigan.
[Emperor Gregor said] “How do you do, Lady Vorpatril, Mademoiselle Rish. Welcome to Barrayar.”
He said this in the exact same way that Lady Vorkosigan had said, Welcome to Vorkosigan House. It came to Tej that he was the one man here who was not a subject.
Every Barrayaran is a subject of Emperor Gregor, pledged to obey him. With their lives, if necessary. Emperor Gregor was the only Barrayaran “who was not a subject”. When I read that, it spent me down a trail of thought. What does it mean to not be a subject? What does it mean to be a citizen, instead?
An emperor is sovereign over many people. Gregor has the power of life and death over his subjects. He can order summary executions at will. A subject holds his own life only at the sufferance of his liege lord.
Gregor is responsible for his subjects. He must protect them, provide for them, care for them. Subjects are dependent on their rulers.
An emperor can seize whatever he wants: property, possessions, or people. Subjects have no legal recourse against this seizure. Subjects enjoy prosperity only at the whim of their sovereigns.
A citizen is sovereign over himself. He holds his life in his own hands. No one has the authority to order his execution. Citizens are independent. A citizen is responsible for himself. He must provide for himself, care for himself, and look out for his own interests. A citizen is entitled to keep what is his. His property is his own and cannot be taken. His possessions are his own and cannot be taken. His family is his own and cannot be taken.
Citizens are not, however, forced to stand alone, live alone, and die alone. A citizen can freely surrender a portion of his sovereignty to another. He can allow another to act as his agent, in all matters. He can allow another to provide for him, defend him, guard his interests, and more. But he retains sovereignty in all things. He can, at any time, fire his agent and either resume excercising sovereignty himself or choose a new agent to act on his behalf.
This is what it means to be an American. We are a nation of 300 million sovereigns. We have delegated a portion of authority to our elected representatives. We allow them to negotiate treaties in our names, to make and conclude war, to levy taxes and spend from the public fisc. But the President is not our ruler. Neither is Congress or the courts. They are merely our delegated agents. We are the rulers.
That is the difference between subjects and citizens. Subjects are ruled by someone else. Citizens rule themselves. Are you a subject? Or a citizen?