The Open State: A Case for E-residency

In a recent interview for El Pais, British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman noted that “[the] marriage between power and politics in the hands of the nation state has ended. Power has been globalized, but politics is as local as before.”[1]

This, in fact, is the most fundamental political problem we are facing today: democracies depend on nation states, while the power of nation states is being eroded by global capital. Nation states are more and more dependent upon international financial institutions to find money for development projects — and upon global corporations for direct investments. As a consequence, local politicians are increasingly failing to represent their constituencies, while trying to please corporations, or institutions like the IMF, or both.

Yet neither these international financial institutions, nor the corporations are particularly interested in democracy. They are only interested in economic convenience. Human rights and human development are not on their agendas. Therefore, democracy suffers.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that most people in advanced, emerging and developing economies consider the current economic system favors the rich [2]. However, people feel powerless when it comes to their capacity to change this: no matter whom you elect as your representative, economic policies stay the same. Therefore, public trust in politicians — and, generally, in governments — declines.

New political movements, on the left and on the right, usually labeled “populist”, are sweeping the political scene in the Western world. However, it is important to understand that what created all this is not the recklessness of mainstream politicians, but the increasing powerlessness of nation states. Modern nation states today are local, territorial entities within a global, fluid world. As a consequence, they seem ill-equipped to deal with such fluidity.

More importantly, nation states are the only institutions so far that were designed to support democracy and human rights for very large communities, comprising tens or hundreds of millions of people. If, for some reason, their power declines, their capacity to support democracy and human rights will also decline.

The idea that if we replace current politicians and current political parties with new ones we’ll get rid of our predicament is completely false — because no such politicians or political parties have come up with a feasible idea on how to re-empower the modern state. Most of them simply promise to take us back to a time when the world was less global and fluid. The populist left promise to take us back to the 1970s, while the populist right seems determined to move us back into the 1950s (or even further back, to less appealing times).

All this might be nice and well — except for the fact that it’s impossible. We need to move forward. We need something new.

And the novelty came from Estonia — although not even the Estonians know what to do with it: it’s the idea of e-residency.

As territorial entities, nation states have citizens and residents. However, there is nothing in their nature that compels nation states to be territorial entities only. They can be both territorial and non-territorial at the same time. Apart from citizens and residents, they can also have e-residents.

An e-resident is a person who was granted access to the virtual “territory” of a state. For instance, one can be a US citizen living in Boston, Massachusetts, and, at the same time, an e-resident of, say, Estonia. As an e-resident, you don’t have citizenship rights; you don’t even obtain the right to live on the physical territory controlled by the state that granted you e-residence.

Then why in the world would you want to become an e-resident of a different state? Well, because of at least some compelling reasons — depending on how a state defines e-residency.

First of all, in my view a state should grant e-residency for free to anyone seeking support for his or her human rights. In this case, the e-resident gains access to the state’s human rights authorities, and also to human rights organizations operating there.

Imagine you live in Cambodia, and you work in the garment industry. You’re exploited like hell, but nobody knows about you. In this case, you might consider registering for free as an e-resident of, say, Norway. You thus get access to Norwegian authorities on human rights, and to Norwegian NGOs dealing with the protection of human rights. You gain a form of protection by letting your case be known.

Or imagine you’re a transgender person living in a country where homophobic policies are in place. You might want to become an e-resident of a progressive country just to get some protection from its authorities or from the NGOs residing there.

Apart from cases regarding human rights, a state could grant e-residency to anyone who is willing to pay a monthly fee, for as long as the fee is paid. In return of the fee, e-residents get access to various services.

Let’s say, for instance, that for 10 dollars a month you get access to 3 different local councils of your choice, helping you to understand local laws; access to all the businesses operating within the territory of those local councils, thus increasing your pool of potential customers, suppliers or partners (and being on a par with major corporations, since they, unlike you, already have access to such information); access to cultural events via live stream; and discounts to various services if you travel to the country that granted you e-residence.

Apart from the above, for 100 dollars a month you get access to ten different local councils, you get the right to directly operate a business in the country of your e-residence, and you get access for yourself and your family to the public education system and the public healthcare system on a par with local residents. (In this case I imagine many US citizens opting to also become e-residents of Canada.)

For 1,000 dollars per month you get access to 100 local councils and a number of regional governments, and for 10,000 dollars per month you have access to the entire country.

This, of course, was just an example. One can also imagine various other services offered in return for the different levels of fees. The idea is that there should be different types of e-residence, depending upon the fee, and also that anyone should be free to choose between different types of e-residence at any time. (For instance, one should be free to opt for the 10,000 dollars per month type of e-residence for one month, and then moving at the 100 dollars per month level.)

An e-residency system will ease and simplify access between people and businesses from different countries. It will also provide a source of income for modern nation states, thus decreasing the pressure placed upon them by global corporations and international financial institutions. (The platform dedicated to e-residency could provide for additional income, just like social media platforms are sources of income by themselves.)

More importantly, such a system will boost democracy, because the more open and democratic a modern state is, the more e-residents will attract. Plus, the system can also be implemented at local level, allowing local governments to raise money for their projects.

We’ll be able to measure the attractiveness of various democratic systems simply by counting the number of e-residents each nation state is able to attract.

Sorin Cucerai