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April 15, 2021

Response to Balaji Srinivasan's 'How to Start a New Country'

This writeup is a response to Balaji Srinivasan's 'How to Start a New Country'. It's less of a review and more of a proposal and exploration of why such a development is critical for not only our species' progress, but to also avoid climate catastrophe and the potential collapse of the biosphere upon which all of our lives depend.

I believe that creating a digital country, a digital citizenship for all who want it, can act as a catalyst for the global transformation we need, creating a new model that works for the planet and all who call it home.

The idea of starting a digital country is one that I have been exploring for the last few years. I'm in the process of writing a whitepaper outlining why it's time to reimagine how we organise our societies so we can bypass the nation-state stalemate, take the necessary collective action against the existential threats we all face, and improve the lives of the billions around the planet who still lack so many of the things those of us in more developed countries take for granted, and how we might be able to make it happen. 

This response is effectively a very short summary of what I've written so far and consists of two sections: Why and How. The section on 'Why' will briefly explore the global challenges we face, the social technologies that brought us here and how the principle of state sovereignty is hamstringing our efforts in combatting these challenges, the state of the world's least fortunate and why improving their material well-being will dramatically increase economic growth, and in turn, everyone's well-being, and why the creation of a digital country, a global citizenship, could be the first step towards creating a model that works for the planet and all who call it home. 

I wish that this piece were a bit more coherent, though I've been pressed for time, and pulled it together in the space of a couple of hours. The core ideas, however, are present. Balaji, feel free to reach out to me at sam@talkoftoday.com if you'd like to chat further. 

Why should we start a new country?

Humanity is at an unprecedented point in history. The actions we take as a species in the coming years will determine whether or not the tree of life will flourish beyond imagining or potentially wither and collapse under the immense weight of our collective actions. The potential consequences are dire. 

Climate change and biosphere degradation are already affecting many of our lives, having tremendous human costs. Up to 1.5 billion people could be forced from their homes by 2050 due to resource scarcity. We already face migration crises that countries can barely cope with. How will we manage one that’s orders of magnitude greater? 

Our time is running out. We are in a climate emergency. We're on the verge of tipping points that could lead to runaway climate change, rendering much of our planet uninhabitable and bringing about untold chaos and harm. Left unchecked, the Earth's temperature could rise to levels unseen for millions of years. 

Whether we like it or not, we now need to accept our role as stewards of this planet. To take on the global challenges we face we need all peoples around the world to put aside their differences and coordinate. Nature cares not for the lines we draw on our maps. 

Global Challenges Require Global Coordination

The array of challenges we face as a species require global coordination. 

Climate change, the potential collapse of the biosphere, ocean acidification, even pandemics, as we've seen in the past year, require the action all of the countries of the world. Even one rogue actor could bring about calamity. 

Unfortunately, the nature of state sovereignty in our inter-national world makes this extremely difficult. 

Sovereignty

By nearly all measures, we live in the greatest time in history. Poverty is at historic lows, our technological capabilities border on magical, and it’s reasonable to assume that within the next few decades, humanity will truly become a space-faring species.

While there are many contributing reasons for why this is the case, there’s one social construct that is heralded as the foundation for the current state of order we find ourselves in: sovereignty.

Sovereignty is the principle of international law that each nation-state has supreme power authority over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country's domestic affairs, and that each state (no matter how large or small) is equal in international law.

Origins of Sovereignty

Political and international relations scholars claim the birth of sovereignty occurred in 1648. This was the year the ‘30 Years War', a war that bankrupted most of its combatants and caused the deaths of over 8 million people, ended. A series of treaties that brought an end to the bloodshed was called the ‘Peace of Westphalia’. It was realised that it would work to the benefit of all if each of the countries respected the borders that divided them, and agreed to not interfere with the goings-on within them.

This is where ‘Westphalian Sovereignty’ came to be, and for centuries it has been central to international law and has lead to the prevailing world order we exist in today.

The stability that followed gave rise to the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the world we exist in today. While the peace did not persevere, the idea and respect for the sovereignty of other nations last to this day, at least in theory. This social construct is the cornerstone central to international law and continues to shape nation-state relations to this day. 

The truth is, sovereignty is a farce. The principle of non-interference is not adhered to. Between 1947 and 1989, the US tried to change the governments of 72 countries. Governments are incessantly committing cyberattacks against one another and fueling propaganda campaigns on social media networks, to list just a few examples. 

There's also, of course, the existence of the Security Council. 

The Security Council 

Our fates today currently rest in the hands of the Security Council of the United Nations, a group of countries whose primary role is to maintain international peace and security. It has 15 members, 5 of which are permanent. They are China, Russia, The United States, France, and the United Kingdom. Importantly these 5 members, possess the ability to ‘veto’ proposals. What's remarkable is that some of these countries, France and the UK, have populations of less than 1% of the world, and yet wield so much powr. 

Rather than promote peace and security, the Security Council is the battlefield where the fate of the world of is decided by soldiers in suits, fighting to promote the interests of their own countries, at the expense of the well-being of the world and the planet. 

The Nation-State Stalemate

It's commonly said that the United Nations, a 'toothless tiger' unable to enforce any of its recommendations due to the built-in need to respect a country's sovereignty and the overwhelming power the security council possesses.  

Substantive resolutions that are proposed in the Security Council that could benefit humanity are shut down by the countries that may be disadvantaged by them. This Nation-state stalemate could be seen as an existential threat. 

The Humanitarian Argument

Global inequality is not so much a question of who you are, but where in the world you were born. A person's nationality is one of the best predictors of life expectancy and income. This need not be the case today, however, due to the vast array of opportunities the internet provides people. 

Below is a brief discussion of the conditions of the world's least fortunate and an explanation of why their material liberation through a digital global citizenship will be of tremendous good not just for themselves, but for the world at large. 

Poverty 

Poverty in the world is worse than we believe. The line for extreme poverty is set to $1.90 a day. At this level, nearly 10% of the world live in extreme poverty. According to the United Nations, extreme poverty is "a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services."

Numerous scholars say that a more reasonable level is $5, and that is still barely sufficient to cover basic nutrition needs. $5 a day is the mean average of all the national poverty lines in the developing world. At this rate, the number of people in poverty would be around 60% of humanity. 

940 million people around the world lack access to electricity. In 2017, 821 million people were undernourished, meaning they lived in a state of not being able to a sufficient level of food to satisfy dietary energy requirements.

Poverty and undernourishment severely impact cognitive performance. In a 2013 paper published in Science, researchers found that poor people suffer from a 13-deficit in IQ, nearly a standard deviation, when working through difficult financial problems. It is widely established that IQ is one of the best predictors of economic success for a person, and many would accept that economic success is an adequate course-grained proxy for contributions to society.

The figures above paint a sad picture. Nearly half the world lives in a state of poverty, concerned with matters of survival, trying to avoid falling into a complete state of destitution, and lack access to the incredible opportunities technologies like the internet provide.

A Selfish and Computational Justification for Altruism

The economy is an evolving complex system that improves the well-being of nearly everyone connected to it. The economy and the technologies that comprise it grant all who are connected to it the ability to access and harness more energy than they would be able to on their own, up to and exceeding 30x for the wealthier people in society. This energy gives us an increased capacity to manipulate the world around us towards our own ends through the use of technologies, which are designs and processes that capture and orchestrate natural phenomena. This is all the result of our being connected to the economy and has substantial impacts on our well-being.

Given that the economy is an evolving complex system that's constantly computing, and humans are the substrates upon which this distributed computation is running, and that new technologies, which drive economic growth, arise within the minds of individual people, improving the material conditions of those least fortunate so that they can contribute to the global economy more productively will benefit everyone on this planet, regardless of which country they call home.

For a more detailed exploration of this, read A Selfish and Computational Justification for Altruism here.

Internet Access & Device Ownership

While not necessary for survival, mentioning internet access rates across the world is worthwhile in this discussion. 

The Internet may be our species’ greatest triumph. It is the ultimate tool of freedom and opportunity, the library of the world, and so, so much more. It provides each of us with access to the collective ancient wisdom of cultures from around the world, multiple civilisations’ worth of creative output, computational resources previously not even accessible to world leaders. (Soon, everyday citizens will be able to access quantum computers.)

The list of what the internet provides is inexhaustible and grows faster than we can describe. And all of its riches are accessible through a supercomputer-multi-tool made of glass you carry around with you in your pocket. 

Internet access is a crucial component of living as a 21st-century citizen and is considered to be a human right, one that enables numerous other rights including the right to affiliation, education, and the right freedom of expression.

Given its importance, it's a tremendous tragedy that so many people still lack access to it. 

According to a widely referenced statistic, the number of people connected to the internet reached 3.4 billion people in 2016. However, to qualify as being 'connected to the internet, one must have accessed the internet at least once within the past 3 months. No one would think they had access to clean water or electricity if they could only access it at least 4 times a year, we shouldn't treat the internet in the same way. 

We could use social media usage can be used as a coarse-grained proxy for internet access, as countries in the OECD tend to have social media usage rates of higher than 90%. Facebook, the largest social media network in the world, has more than 2.6 billion monthly active users. 1.73 billion of those use the platform daily. To be generous, we can say that 2.6 billion people have access to the internet. With a world population of roughly 7.6 billion people at the time of writing, only a little less than two-thirds of the world could be considered as having internet access.

Given the outstanding array of opportunities, internet access provides people with — the ability to learn, communicate, make a living, etc — 

One of the most impactful ways in which we could help the poorest of the world is by providing them access to the internet. 

Recognition

This is one of the most important justifications for the necessity of creating a new country. It is generally accepted that sovereign states have a duty to care for their own citizens.

It is this notion that brought about the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a political commitment endorsed by all member states of the UN, giving the global community license to interfere within a country to avoid atrocities like war-crimes and genocide.

The existing order has failed to ensure the security of the human rights of people around the world. The politics of nation-states means that millions of people fall through the cracks and into the shadows. National interests are put before human rights, and the UN appears to be nearly powerless to stop this from happening.

The costs of this have been high, and are likely to increase if we don’t take action. There are millions of stateless people (people without a nationality) around the world and 60+ million refugees, with far more to come due to our destabilising climate.

By creating a new country – a global citizenship for all who want it — there's a greater moral obligation to provide for our fellow citizens — regardless of where they are located.

This global citizenship can be a means for those of us that were born more fortunate to recognise the global disadvantaged as fellow citizens and use this new nationality as a vehicle for change.

Why we Should Start a Digital Country — A Global Citizenship 

Countries are not permanent. While to many people, they seem as real as the ground we walk on, the truth is far less concrete. Not only are countries a relatively new social technology, but their lifetimes can also vary substantially. The list of countries that no longer exist far exceeds those that we live in today. They’re created and destroyed by flicks of a pen, existing on paper and in our minds, nothing more.

By creating a new country, a global network state, we can increase the amount of overlap between our nationalities, slowly eroding the artificial divides we’ve placed between members of our species.

This is completely within our rights. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, states that: "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."

By creating a digital country, we can start to shift the power away from the countries that are abdicating their duty, and, hopefully, start building a more equitable, transparent model. 

This will initially start with those of us that are among the most fortunate in the world, but can be seen as a way for us to extend a helping hand to the seemingly forgotten billions, empowering them to potentially liberate themselves and seek their own path in life, exploring new opportunities, made possible by the internet. 

How

Having briefly discussed why the creation of a global network state — global citizenship — could be the catalyst for the global transformations we so desperately need, we will now explore how we might be able to make it happen. 

The core idea is this: Create crypto-based digital services that are better than those that our governments currently provide and get people using them today and get citizens across the world to use them. This 'operating system' of a global network state can be used as the digital infrastructure of network states across the entire world.

That being said, the end goal is statehood, and ideally a seat on the security council, down the track. So requirements like the need for territory need to be met. 

However, being recognised as a legitimate country will take time and will likely cause some controversy. That won't stop us from providing potentially billions of people with access to some services better than they receive in their own countries. We don't need statehood to begin changing people's lives, what we need to do is build. 

Services

To make something like this a reality, we need to deliver services comparable to, and better than, existing nation-states. Being recognised as a legitimate country will take time and will likely cause some controversy. That won't stop us from providing potentially billions of people with access to some services better than they receive in their own countries. We don't need statehood to begin changing people's, what we need to do is build. 

Here are some proposals that could deliver real value to people today. 

Identity — Citizenship 

Identity is arguably the most important component of citizenship as it is critical in delivering access to other services.  Without the ability to identify themselves, people are less likely to get access to basic needs and services like healthcare, education, as well as the ability to vote, an issue that affects hundreds of millions of people today.

Technologies like zero-knowledge proofs and biometrics can enable us to create digital identity solutions that are incorruptible and don't betray any information about the individual, preserving anonymity where needed or desired while still enabling the provisioning of services. 

Education

We don't need free education, we already have it. The best educational content in the world is available online. What we lack is credentialing. People generally go to university for the signalling benefits a degree confers, not as much for the education (Caplan, 2018). In a majority of cases, this can be seen as a vast waste of resources and counterproductive. 

What we need is an open, free means of credentialling people online, so that anyone, no matter where they are, can prove that they have the relevant expertise, which they can use to get employment. 

Distributed ledger technology empowers us to provide people with irrefutable evidence that they know and can do what their credentials infer.

Currency 

A country needs its own currency. Crypto provides us with the means of creating a currency that all in the network state can use. The details of what would be the best way to proceed here are not my area of expertise, though a huge amount of exploration and experimentation has been done in the crypto world to date, and functional crypto-based currency for a global network state is a near certainty. 

Funding 

A state requires a continuous form of funding to make things work. Here are some rough ideas on how this could be done. The list is far from exhaustive

  • NFTs: The first 1000-10,000 people to pay X amount get an NFT that states they were a part of the founding citizens of this global network state. Perhaps different tiers depending on the size of the investment.
  • A VAT placed on all transaction to fuel ongoing service provisioning and development
  • Selling the digital government operating system we build to other countries and maintaining it
  • Funds for the state generated by the protocol annually  

Work 

Create and leverage existing workforce protocols like ethlance to get people working within the global network states economy, paying them in the network state's currency, or in others.  

Provisioning of Smartphones

As discussed in the section on 'Why', internet access and, importantly, device ownership are necessary for living in the 21st century. The internet is the ultimate tool of liberation, increasing equality of opportunity more than anything else in existence. 

This global network state feasibly could provide it's citizens with the means to buy their own smartphone and provide internet access. Smartphones can be bought for as low as $100USD now. While it may seem infeasible at the moment and in the near future, it's something we could aspire towards. The internet is now our species birthright.

Law & Order 

Ideally, many issues relating to digital law and order will be able to be handled by smart contracts. There will of course be instances where 'state' intervention is necessary. How this will be handled is there to be explored. 

Creating a Country

Now, how to actually start a country? 

According to international law, a country requires: 

  • A permanent population
  • A defined territory
  • Government
  • The capacity to enter into relations with the other states

We need a territory, though it need not be a big one. Just enough to support an extremely minimal population, enough to fulfil the 'permanent population' requirement. This could be a small plot of land within another country that we could buy, a floating seastead on the ocean — we have options. This should satisfy the first and second requirements. 

Having a government and the capacity to enter into relations with really quite feasible. We can establish a digital government, the details of which obviously require deep exploration and experimentation. Given the increasing economic reliance on the internet, and the fact that distributed ledger technologies will be the base layer for this digital economy, our network state will be able to enter into relations, political and economic, with other states. Ideally, our citizens will wield such digital influence that it may become necessary.  

Conclusion 

One of the aims of the write-up above is to expand the idea of what might be possible for a global network state. We now have the technologies available to us to make this happen. The ultimate tool of power, money, is no longer within the control of nation-states to wield as they see fit. Through the global connectivity provided to us by the internet, we can unite and create a country, one for anyone who wants to join, and use it to create the change the world so desperately needs. 

There's not much time to waste, either. We're on a path to climate calamity, destroying the natural systems on which our species relies on. The well-being of billions is literally at stake. 

The future is there for those that dare to build it. 

I believe that something like this — the creation of crypto-based global citizenship — is one way we can do it. 


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