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What if countries had to compete for citizens?
Just like companies compete for customers.
My last essay imagines a world where we replace income tax with sales tax and suddenly it’s in a country’s best interest to open the borders—because the more people who live and spend money in a country, the richer it becomes.
Let’s go on to imagine that the whole world implements this policy.
Now you, as a citizen, have your choice to live in any city in the world—where would you live? Maybe you’d pick someplace that was safe, or affordable. Perhaps someplace with good jobs, access to the outdoors, maybe a vibrant culture. If you want a good education you might pick someplace where that is affordable. If you have children you might move someplace with subsidized childcare. If you’re an entrepreneur or about to retire, you might want access to free healthcare.
Personally, I think the best working model we have for good government comes from the Nordic countries, as outlined in the book The Nordic Theory of Everything. The Nordic countries subsidize childcare, education, and healthcare so that every individual has the opportunity to thrive, and I’d love to move to a country that invests in their people the way they do. It’s no wonder the Nordic countries are often called the happiest place to live!
Well, wherever you live, that country gets your tax dollars. Now it’s in their best interest to make life in that country good—because you could just as easily pick up and move somewhere better and then that country will get all your money, making it even better. Countries could even go bankrupt if they aren’t treating citizens well and a mass exodus takes place. Suddenly countries are competing with one another for residents—it’s like capitalism, but for countries!
And what might countries do if they are competing to become the best place to live?
Might they get rid of crime, find solutions for homelessness and drug abuse, make housing affordable, invest in more green space? Might they even give up prejudice? After all, Neom seems like it would be a great place to live—and the new city plans to entice 9 million people to live there—but as a woman, would I really move to Saudi Arabia? Probably not. Suddenly it becomes in Saudi Arabia’s best interest to treat women really well, otherwise they’ll have a city full of men! (And those men will probably move elsewhere….)
I’m writing a utopian novel and a collection of essays imagining a more beautiful future. Join us? 👇🏻
We could prevent war
This could have the additional benefit of stifling authoritarian governments—because if citizens aren’t treated well, they could just leave.
To some extent, this already happens. As of 2020, 17.9 million people have left India, 11.1 million have left Mexico, 10.8 million have left Russia, and 10.5 million have left China—and if the borders were open, those numbers would likely be way higher. Are any of us surprised that those are the countries most people are leaving?
These countries aren’t just losing people, they are losing money. Henley & Partners, which tracks the movements of 150,000 high-net-worth individuals, predicts Russia will lose 15,000 multi-millionaires in 2022, more than any other country. China is close behind and set to lose 10,000, India will lose 8,000, and Hong Kong will lose 3,000—that’s millions of dollars in tax revenue going elsewhere.
As a result, neighboring countries are booming. According to one Reuters report, at least 112,000 Russians have fled to Georgia, causing the country to become one of the fastest-growing economies this year. These aren’t impoverished emigrants, roughly half are tech professionals who have transferred more than $1 billion from Russian banks to Georgian ones, strengthening the Georgian currency.
And all of that is despite the fact that immigration is extremely difficult right now. How many more people would migrate if the borders were open? And how much more would countries like Georgia benefit if they were able to start earning tax dollars from their new, even transient citizens? “In the war for talent, countries that offer the most hassle-free migration will get the edge,” Parag Khanna says in his book Move: Where People Are Going for a Better Future. “And make no mistake what they mean by talent: youth.”
What would happen to Russia if it lost all of its citizens? Including its high-earning ones? And it’s youth? And probably its military? (200,000 more citizens left when Russia announced conscription.) Well, they probably wouldn’t have an economy, and they wouldn’t really be in a position to fight a war. They might have one wildly swinging person left and some elderly supporters, but without a young, professional workforce the country would crumble, becoming impoverished and destitute even as its neighboring countries boom.
“A hypothetical world in which each person could choose only one citizenship would be deeply embarrassing for the nationalist leaders in Turkey, Russia, and Brazil, given how keen their youth are to abandon ship,” Khanna says.
Even countries with a high prevalence of terrorism would quickly run out of people to terrify if those citizens were free to flee elsewhere. I could even see an NGO emerge that would transport people out of bad and dangerous environments to much better ones. The good countries might even fund it so they could attract more citizens, earn more income, and become even more wealthy.
We could make every country utopian
What would happen to those countries left behind? The ones that drastically depopulate?
Well, let’s look at the most interesting map I’ve ever seen. According to Gallup, this is the population countries would gain/lose if the borders were open and everyone could move wherever they wanted:
What this map shows is that there would be a huge rush for those dark green countries: New Zealand (231% population gain), Iceland (208% gain), United Arab Emirates (204% gain), Switzerland (187% gain), Singapore (185% gain), Australia (179% gain), Kuwait (169% gain), Bhutan (162% gain), Canada (147% gain), Luxembourg (131% gain), and Norway (109% gain).
There would also be modest increases in those lighter green areas: In North & South America, The United States (46% gain), Panama (34% gain), Costa Rica (25% gain), and Uruguay (5% gain). Much of western Europe would see an influx, including Sweden (98% gain), Greenland, (91% gain), Ireland (48% gain), Germany (45% gain), France (44% gain), Austria (44% gain), Portugal (40% gain), Finland (38% gain), UK (37% gain), Spain (36% gain) Netherlands (29% gain), and Belgium (17% gain). Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia would see a 90% gain, Botswana a 35% gain, Gabon a 23% gain, Central African Republic a 7% gain, Thailand a 2% gain, and Japan a 1% gain.
But the rest of the world, all those countries in orange and red, would drastically lose people. We’re talking most of Latin America, almost all of South America and Africa, and almost all of Eastern Europe and Asia.
Those dark green countries, the ones deemed most desirable to live in, totally make sense to me. Norway, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Switzerland, and Bhutan are countries I’ve already been studying because, in a lot of ways, they are already utopian societies. People who live in those countries enjoy low levels of stress, high levels of prosperity, and the rest of the world would love to get in on that quality of life.
And if those countries are doing something right, why shouldn’t other countries try to replicate it?
They’ll have to. In this world, countries can either compete (as in they can fix the problems and make their country a really great place to live and work in an effort to attract people to stay) or they can crumble. And if they crumble, like those red countries probably will, what if the green countries could “purchase” them in a kind of merger and acquisition type scenario?
Hang with me for a minute.
This is what happens in the corporate world. Successful companies often merge with or acquire failing companies, and then apply their working model to the less successful company that doesn’t, elevating both brands. Instead of letting one company die, with all those people losing their jobs, the more successful company salvages the brand and helps them succeed, by applying all the resources they have that will help.
In our country model, let’s just assume some of the Eastern European countries—which have been drastically depopulating since the 1990s—decide to become Nordic countries. They keep their culture, their way of life, but suddenly they have access to free childcare, free education, free healthcare, just like the Nordic countries do. Well now instead of losing millions of people, they start gaining millions of people. Companies move in, residents now have jobs. They become dark green countries and start enjoying all the benefits of their parent countries. And the Nordic countries, who gain so many citizens in the process, become more affluent and more able to provide those services to all the people in their purview.
This kind of consolidation could get interesting. Nearly a third of Latin America would immigrate to the United States if they could—largely because of corrupt governments. But might some of those countries prefer to just become part of the United States? We export our government and police force, eliminating corruption, eradicating crime. Maybe some our biggest companies and factories relocate to Mexico where they have access to more workers and those cities suddenly have access to jobs and wealth and security. Though they keep everything about their culture and their way of life, the economy gets better. They don’t need to leave their homes, their cities.
Now, I’m not saying that Finland should buy Estonia. Or that the United States should buy Mexico. I’m saying that in a world where countries have to compete for citizens, they’ll be incentivized to become better places for people to live, to become green countries in their own right, and if they can’t, well they can always import better governments from a neighboring country and still be a green place to live—it’s their choice. Either way, no country would be left to flounder with bad or authoritarian governments, no access to resources, uninhabitable land, or a lack of economy. Just like companies do, countries could learn from each other, compete with each other, and even merge with one another if it’s beneficial. And all of the land on earth would become a really great place to live.
We could give power to communities
The biggest drawback to this plan is, in my mind, also its biggest opportunity—and hang in with me a little longer because this is where the whole thing is leading.
In my utopian novel, I imagine a far future world in which countries have consolidated to the point that there are only five left—they are basically continents. You might think that would be a bad thing—that, if there were only five governments in the world, those governments would have way too much amassed power, and way too much control—and if governments behaved the way they do today, that would totally be true.
But what if we actually give those big governments less power? Less control?
I think there are a lot of beneficial things governments provide their citizens—all those dark green countries provide their citizens with military protection, education systems, healthcare systems, and infrastructure systems. But I also think governments struggle to make decisions that will affect a wide and differing population group, and they probably shouldn’t be the deciding party when it comes to the day-to-day details of how we live our lives—like how parents should raise their kids, who should be able to get married, what people can do with their bodies, and who can compete in sports.
Why should the United States government make a decision that applies to California the same way it applies to Texas? For that matter, why should Texas make a decision that applies to Austin the same way it applies to Houston? Those places have entirely different needs—and wants—from one another. That’s why, in a world where governments are allowed to expand and care for larger groups of people, I also want to take the bulk of government powers away from countries, and even states, and give them to cities. To communities.
In this case, the only role of government is to provide the basic resources citizens need to thrive—we’re talking military protection, education, childcare, healthcare, and infrastructure—and maybe a universal basic income but I’ll have to do more research on that one. Basically we copy/paste all the things that are working for those dark green countries, essentially the book The Nordic Theory of Everything, except that we take the rest of government power away from countries and give them to cities.1
That’s how Greenland works. Greenland is owned by Denmark, and Denmark provides the island with all the benefits of a well-established country: foreign security, publicly-funded education, publicly-funded healthcare, and pensions. Denmark also provides Greenland with a substantial annual block grant. But Greenland self-governs—they have their own legislature, autonomy over their own people, and can make the decisions that best benefit them. They have their own culture that is unique to them, and they get to decide what makes the best sense for their community. And why shouldn’t all communities function like that?
My utopian novel is going to try this out—imagining a world where there are international laws countries adhere to, countries that provide basic resources (military, education, healthcare, childcare, infrastructure) to their citizens so that everyone in the world has their basic needs met, and cities that self-govern, hearkening back to Plato’s city-state model and providing opportunity for their residents to live the good life.
And this is where my next essay begins.
As always, my ideas are a work in progress and I can’t wait to chat with you in the comments section and hear your ideas.
Thanks for thinking through utopia with me!
P.S. I’ll be on vacation the next two weeks, but I invited some utopian thinkers to write guest posts in my absence!!! I’m so excited to share their work with you, and I’ll be back in three weeks!
In this kind of post-consolidation world, I’m imagining that sales tax would go to the cities, with the cities competing with one another for residents, and then countries get a cut of that sales tax to pay for those overarching services.