The end is nigh and plutocrats are on the run

It is one thing to auction nationality, another to hawk it cheap
A view of Lake Wanaka from Treble Cone ski resort, New Zealand © Getty

Not for the first time, Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley investor and PayPal founder, has caused a stir.

First, he funded the lawsuit that upended news site Gawker. Then, to the dismay of Silicon Valley liberals, he backed Donald Trump.
Now, he is in the thick of controversy in New Zealand, where the government has come under heavy criticism for secretly granting nationality to the German-born US citizen in return for donations and investment after the Christchurch earthquake.

There is no small irony in the timing of this trade. Governments across the developed world are responding to a retreat to nativism and public hostility to immigration, by erecting barriers to refugees fleeing wars and migrants escaping poverty. Mr Trump is preparing to build a wall to prevent Mexicans from crossing the Rio Grande. Britain’s Brexiters are willing to trade prosperity for greater control of UK borders. Europe’s leaders are pondering how to stem the tide of migrants risking all to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Yet for those with wallets big enough, like Mr Thiel, it has become ever easier to knock down borders, bypass bureaucracy and acquire a pile of passports. Indeed there is an enormous choice of countries, from the exotic to the merely convenient where citizenship, or its close cousin investor residency, are now more or less on sale.

Mr Thiel’s precise motives for choosing New Zealand are unclear. He claims to identify strongly with the national ethos. But he also joins a growing throng of Americans for whom a bunker bolthole on the Antipodean islands has become fashionable — a kind of insurance policy against apocalypse.

Last month, in response to Mr Trump’s election, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of their speculative Doomsday Clock half a minute closer to midnight. They believe the US president’s views on climate change and expanding the US nuclear arsenal have heightened the risk of a catastrophic global event to levels not seen since the height of the cold war. The same month a record number of Americans — 13,000 — inquired about nationality in New Zealand, bringing to light this global trend in preparation for end times.

The high cost of entry to this lucrative market prevents the numbers getting out of hand.

However, that the world’s wealthy are somehow securing special consideration for their applications sits uncomfortably with New Zealand’s egalitarian self image.

Some would go further. Putting nationality up for sale erodes the very notion of citizenship, they argue. It should not be just about how much you are worth. It should also be about less tangible values — a sense of belonging or, at the very least, loyalty.

When Malta devised a scheme to lure wealthy individuals, the European Parliament was equally unhappy. It voted in 2014 by a margin of 560 to 22 to oppose the sale of European citizenship, with 44 abstentions. The vote was non-binding. Maltese MPs amended the rules anyway, effectively doubling the price of a passport. Their point was that if governments are going to hawk citizenship they should at least make the trade worthwhile.

The new world was conquered by men and women who on arrival on alien shores metaphorically, or literally in the case of Hernán Cortés, the 16th century Spanish conquistador, burnt their ships. By doing so they gave themselves no choice but to make a go of it. Billionaire bunker bolt-holes and passports for sale will arguably have the opposite effect.

There is less incentive to stay at home and prevent disaster if you have the luxury of retreat.

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