What is a Citizen?

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A citizen is a person who is granted full rights and responsibilities by a nation or political community. Citizenship typically comes with a duty to pay taxes, serve in the military and to obey the laws of the country to which one belongs. Different nations define citizenship differently and may grant full rights to all citizens or limit them to some groups. Citizenship can be gained through birth within a country, descent from a citizen parent, marriage to a citizen or naturalization.

Law is a body of rules created and enforced by social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. It is usually defined as the set of principles, directives and procedures enforceable by a state in order to achieve certain public objectives such as maintaining order and protecting liberty and property. Law can be made through a legislative process, resulting in statutes; by the executive, through decrees and regulations; or established by judges through precedent in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts.

The term citizen replaces the terms subject and national in English, with citizen preferred because it implies allegiance to a people in which sovereign power is retained by the people and shared in common, rather than allegiance to a personal sovereign such as a monarch. The word subject reflects the earlier, feudal relationship between the monarch and his or her subjects; it is still used in British constitutional law and in some nationality legislation.

A person who is not a citizen of a nation is known as an alien. Aliens must comply with the laws of a country where they reside, but have fewer rights and responsibilities than citizens. For example, legal aliens must pay taxes but can not vote or hold government office.

The term citizen has several etymological roots, including “citizens of the world” and “citizens of the empire.” It is also related to a variety of legal concepts such as civil society, civil liberties, criminal justice, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The law is often described as being an instrument of modernity, reflecting the impact on society and politics by developments such as the rise of industry and science, the spread of information and the development of international politics. In addition, the modern military and police force and bureaucracy impose restrictions on everyday life that earlier writers such as John Locke and Montesquieu could not have foreseen. See also law, philosophy of; censorship; and crime and punishment. These examples are automatically compiled from various online sources, and may not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors.