Becoming a virtual citizen

Hello to all the witizens out there.

A witizen, in case you aren’t one/didn’t know, is a citizen of Wirtland. Founded in 2008, it claims to be the world’s first internet-based sovereign country. Wirtland thinks of itself as a real country with real people, where the only thing that is virtual is the soil. It is not correct to interpret Wirtland as an imaginary virtual world, witizens say.

But why not? Why couldn’t citizenship be entirely virtual and independent of location? Why should nationality and geography be so closely tied? The answer, of course, is that they are that way purely because we’ve never had the means for it to be any other way. But now we do. In the future, switching nationality could be like switching bank accounts.

In 1933, when the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States was written, the delegates came up with four qualifications for being a nation; a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and capacity to enter into relations with the other states. It’s really only the second criteria, having a defined territory, that poses a problem for purely virtual nations. There was no internet in 1933 so no one at the convention could even imagine a nation without land, but since then micronations have been started on abandoned oil rigs and artificial floating islands. So perhaps nations don’t need land after all, and virtual nations start to look like more of a reality.

In fact, virtual nations are nothing new. Estonia offers e-residency, a kind of digital citizenship that allows entrepreneurs to set up and run a company entirely online. So that’s a start. But when sovereign nation states talk about becoming virtual they think of it as the online version of the offline nation. They miss the point. Virtual nationality has so much more potential.

Let’s make this vision of the future of virtual nationality a little easier to comprehend, let’s use the countries we’re familiar with today.

You might live in Brazil but you’re not happy with the policies of the Brazilian government. You don’t like how much they spend on healthcare, so choose to virtually emigrate to Bulgaria which has policies you agree with more. As a Bulgarian citizen (who just happens to physically live in Brazil) you pay your taxes to Bulgaria and Bulgaria purchases public services such as policing, waste collection and healthcare on your behalf to enact their policies on Brazilian soil. If you want better healthcare whilst living in Brazil, and Bulgaria has committed to providing it, why shouldn’t become a Bulgarian citizen.

In this future, all governments are split between the virtual and the physical. Virtual government decides on it’s nations policies. Physical government manages the real world public services which are made available to all virtual nations. So, in our example the part of Brazilian government that is responsible for providing services in the real world is incentivised to provide high quality public services so they can sell them for higher value to other governments. Any virtual nation can purchase services from any physical nation and provide them to their citizens.

Citizens get better services. Nations get more taxes. Nationality-as-a-service, over the internet. Everybody wins… right?

But what about all those people who don’t have high paying jobs who can be charged taxes, do they still get to switch nationality? What would incentivise governments to accept them? What would incentivise governments to offer better health care if they thought it would mean an influx of citizens unable to pay towards it?

Nationality should be virtual. And it almost certainly will be in the not too distant future, but we need to wary of creating it in the way that doesn’t work for everyone. Markets only work for those with buying power. They don’t treat those without it in the same way, and often exclude them all together. Creating a marketplace for nationality, or free speech, or anything necessary to participate in the life of a citizen, will always result in unequal power. That’s the nature of markets. They don’t work for managing nations.

If nations exist to improve the lives of their citizens, then that should include all their citizens, whether the nations are virtual or not.