The Nation State Offers No Solutions for the Future

by Madeleine Bausch

Nation states, these globally established constructs of kings, politicians or rulers of various kinds and times, have become an indispensable part of our everyday life. According to the United Nations, there are 195 in number and they organize, regulate and determine our co-existence, international trade and organizations as well as what is considered right and wrong. They determine – with some variation from nation to nation, for example,

  • which law prevails, what each individual may and may not do,
  • how to behave in traffic,
  • what time the supermarket closes,
  • how much money the cities and municipalities are entitled to,
  • what the curricula and education of our children look like, what and how they are taught,
  • how much money is allocated to research and teaching at universities,
  • when we can go to a physician,
  • our pension (which is getting smaller and smaller),
  • norms and standards of quality of goods and services,
  • which goods may be sold in the country; they ‘protect’ the consumers; in doing so they also set prices,
  • how farmers should handle their cattle and vegetables,
  • in the case of Germany, help to finance the infrastructure and the population in eastern Germany through redistribution,
  • if and in which name you are allowed to sign different types of contracts.

The list would probably be endless if I organized a big brainstorming festival with my neighbors.

In short, modern nation states provide answers to the problems of a populace that is loyal to this nation state for at least most of its life. Nation states bind people legally, fiscally, linguistically and culturally to a limited geographical territory and, thus, differentiate them from other people based on social, political, economic grounds or on a matter of identity. The nation state offers answers, provided that people think and act predominantly nationally and locally – but above all remain physically in one nation state.

For some time now, however, the world has become more and more international, increasingly intertwined on a global level – above all in the digital realm. Although globalization is not a new phenomenon, in recent decades new communication and transport technologies have been contributing to a true feeling of a global community and to people leaving their home country more frequently, living in other parts of the world instead.

It is a vast accumulation of factors that ultimately leads to the fact that many people today are no longer bound to just one nation: whether the adventurous traveler or Erasmus student, the ambitious expat, the desperate refugee or the job-seeking migrant – they all have in common that they belong not only to one nation state, but to two, or in most cases several, in the course of their lives.

As soon as I leave my country – for whatever reason – the question arises: What do I do with my health insurance? And the pension insurance? What happens with the money I have paid in over the years? How do I finance my pension abroad? Does my new home country even have a pension insurance? And health insurance? What do I do with my children’s education? Does the private international school simply accept them? What happens if they do not speak the national language?

As long as the migration process ‘only’ includes two or three states, the situation is usually still easy to solve:  Either I continue to pay my pension ‘at home’ voluntarily in order to receive a pension there later; or I take out a private pension insurance in the new country; I just send my children to a German school in Vietnam (which I may have to pay for, but at least they continue to learn German) or I just wait several years until I have fully assimilated.

But it becomes more complicated when you lead more extreme forms of this pronounced ‘born global’ life, as increasingly more people are doing. The children of Erasmus students in love then grow up in a third country (these children are often called Third-Country-Kids), live here or there, go first to a state school, then to a private school abroad. As adult employees, they pay taxes here and there, use health insurance here (because the law requires it), pay pension insurance there. Some national systems are sometimes more compatible because they have similar laws and structures; others are fundamentally different, and there may not even be the structures that people were used to in their former country.

As an expat, migrant or even parent, this is a fundamental problem, of which I will mention four examples here:

  • a lot of money already paid in insurance policies may never be redeemed or paid out,
  • bureaucratic obstacles complicate the already stressful change into another system,
  • many national schools do not accept children who have only attended international schools, or who do not know the school system from before or do not speak the language,
  • some nation states do not even recognize other nationalities, sometimes making it impossible to do anything (starting from moving to another city up to registering a WIFI access).

The bottom line is that modern nation states no longer provide solutions to the problems of today’s modern, globalized world.

The ‘sovereignty’ of the nation states no longer helps the migrant if he decides today to emigrate to some other country far away tomorrow. Heads of state and politicians are far too proud to work together to find a solution. Everyone just wants to distinguish themselves at the global roundtable of nation states, show that their own solution is ‘the best way.’ the one true universal solution that is best implemented everywhere – whether it is a Western understanding of democracy or radical Islamism. While interstate collaboration such as the EU does indeed facilitate migration within the member states, these supranational institutions are still a rarity on our planet.

For the migrant arises the question: what to do?

Up to now, only private institutions (health insurance, pension insurance or schools) have provided solutions to the structural and bureaucratic problems of modern migration: you pay for the ‘service’ you need and use. Meanwhile, even if the state pension insurance can perhaps be paid and redeemed regardless of location, it nonetheless must be anchored in some country in terms of authorities and taxes. Truly decentralized institutions do not exist so far – since they are not assigned to any nation state, i.e. the ‘decentralized pension insurance for ‘global nomads’’ has not yet been invented.

We must therefore ask ourselves whether nation states are at all viable. I do not think so. If nations don’t start thinking in more global terms, there is little justification for them playing as big of a role in the future as they do now. Instead, all of us would need to develop alternative institutions to solve the problems that an increasingly global world is presenting to us.

Madeleine Bausch is a PhD student in Intercultural Management at the University of Passau and a Research Associate at the Chair for Intercultural Communication.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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