Discriminating by Geography

‘It [Brexit] was a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy, national self-determination, and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit’
Theresa May – 17th January 2017

The decision of the British public on the 23rd of June 2016 to withdraw from the European Union brought the issue of immigration firmly under the microscope of mainstream global media and academia. Central amongst the subsequent debate on ‘Brexit’ has been the question of border controls and their democratic potential. In this article we will first consider our very understanding of the term ‘democracy’, and then its particular application in the 21st century. We will discuss the role of border controls in the modern nation-state, and the arguments both for and against their role in the preservation of the democratic process. In doing so we shall proffer the argument that unilateral border controls are fundamentally opposed to a literal understanding of democracy, and that they are required only to the extent that they preserve our modern state construction. This article in no way offers a value judgement on the moral justifiability of border controls, simply an analysis of their impact on the democratic process.

The Theory

The etymological roots of Democracy are found in the ancient greek word Demokratia, demos meaning ‘people’ and kratos meaning ‘powers’. In a literal sense then, democracy may be understood as people having powers to influence any decision that may affect them.

In this literal definition of the term, there is no room for particularism. Demos here, are not confined to a geographic region, a gender, or a hereditary notion of class. Instead the term may be understood as universal, encompassing the entirety of humanity under the bracket of ‘the people’.

This does not seem an unfair assumption, particularly when we consider the far-reaching implications of modern global politics, and the oft quoted assumption that morality is universal. If it is fair to understand universal morality on the basis of equal human worth, surely it is fair to extend universal equality to politics on the basis of a right to equal human influence?

If we approach our question from this literal standpoint we find ourselves, by definition, agreeing with Carens’ 1987 mantra that border controls, ‘like feudal barriers to mobility, protect unjust privilege’.

Taken to its logical extreme, Carens’ universal democracy stops nothing short of a worldwide agreement on freedom of movement, and the abandonment of conditional migration. In this scenario we may imagine an instance such as a global ‘Schengen Area’, through which travellers may pass without documentation. However, such a situation seems implausible given the circumstances of current global politics. If we take either a Realist or Liberal perspective and assume the international system is characterised by anarchy, then it is logical to assume that total freedom of movement will simply create political chaos and turmoil on the previously ordered domestic level.

Alternatively, as Abizadeh suggests, territorial borders may achieve literal democracy through universal agreement on border controls. Only through a multilateral approach in which conditional entry is ‘democratically justified to foreigners as well as to citizens’, can universal democracy be fulfilled. In this scenario border controls may be implemented, as kratos are given to all those potentially affected by this decision.

We may imagine this on the micro scale, with two neighbours erecting a fence between their property by mutual agreement, but with the multi-faceted nature of global politics, the transposition of this ideal to an international scale seems equally unsustainable. In fact it is most likely unprecedented. Transnational border controls are innately unilateral, simply by definition of the fact that if they were truly democratic, there would be no need to enforce them.

We may conclude therefore, that nation-states must not have control over their borders if a literal and universal version of democracy is to be achieved.

The Reality

In reality however, universal democracy has never been practically attained.

Up to the modern day, history only relates examples of subjective, discriminatory democracies, which represent only the select demos. We have never seen the potential of an ‘unbounded’ democracy.

Although the literal translation does not delineate a scope for the demos, its original implementation is particular. Our first dating of the word Demokratia is to Herodotus in the middle of the 5th century B.C. In book 6 chapter 43 of his Histories Herodotus details how the Persian general Mardonius punished Athens for its part in the Ionian Revolt by removing the Greek tyrants from Ionian city-states. To the surprise of the Greeks, the Persians did not tyrannically rule the states for a second time, but instead ‘organised democracies in their cities’. The crucial part of this tale is the word ‘cities’. Demokratia here has a clear and defined geographical boundary.

Likewise if we look beyond the word itself, we can trace the first rule of the people back to ancient Athens. Aristotle tells us in his text on the Athenian Constitution that Cleisthenes led a revolt between 508 and 507 B.C which overthrew the pro-Spartan aristocracy, and implemented a system of direct rule by the Athenian people. Not only was this system geographically particular to the city of Athens and the surrounding provinces of Attica, but it was also particular by gender, class and ethnicity. No more than 30% of the adult population participated in the democratic process, with women, slaves, and immigrants were all barred from Athenian citizenship, and thus from kratos. In its original sense, democracy was not universal by any stretch of the imagination. This begs the question, where should the boundaries of practical democracy be drawn?

Democracy Today

The modern answer to this practical conundrum is the nation-state. At the present moment, humanity divides itself into 195 nation-states. 123 of these identify as ‘democratic’. Under this modern construct, people live in particularised areas, geographically defined by territorial borders, and unilaterally governed by citizens of the nation-state. In most of these modern systems it is now seen as anti-democratic to discriminate by gender, class and ethnicity, such as was done in ancient Athens, but discrimination by geography of birth remains a constant feature of the particular Demokraita.

Geographically distinct democracies such as nation-states create an inherent immigration issue. As we have previously established, borders that are created unilaterally are done so for one reason: for protection against a perceived threat to a particular interest. The converse of this is that those who do not reside within the state may desire entry. This is an issue exacerbated by the relative successes of modern democratic states. A 2016 report by Our World Data suggested that citizens of a modern democracy are likely to enjoy better state protection of their human rights and increased standards of accessible education, not to mention political influence over their personal situation. When you couple this with the fact that Western democracies in particular maintain some of the strongest economies on the planet, a clear immigration incentive is created.

The introduction of these new interest groups puts pressure on the political system to cater for the immigrant population, threatening the particular dominance of those within the democratic system. This often creates a political backlash from ‘citizens’ of the democratic state who then look to reassert their geographical monopoly on power to maintain the benefits of their national identity.

In the case of Brexit, 17% of ‘leave voters’ made their decision based primarily on a belief that it would protect and enhance sovereign democracy of the British nation, as evidenced by the Prime Minister’s speech cited above. This zero- sum thinking is an inherent part of democratic discrimination. As the democratic state gives kratos only to the particular demos, decision-making will always be skewed in favour of this select group. To prevent this system being altered by migrant pressure, the designated citizenship must be able to enforce its political power.

So how do modern democracies use border controls to enforce their geographically particular powers? The most basic and common method is standardised documentation. This is usually regulated by physical control of a territorial border. The UK for example, requires either a passport or identity card as a minimum qualification for entry. These regulations keep a tight control on migration flows, allowing the nation-state to dictate entrants largely to its particular interest.

We now have an understanding of the modern democratic state, the immigration issue with which it contends, and the current system of control via geographical monopoly. With this understanding however, can we define this current system of border control as a democratic necessity?

The ‘Right to Exclude’ Argument

Prominent amongst the pro-border theorists is Christopher Wellman. Wellman argues that states have a right to ‘freedom of association’, which inherently gives them the ‘right to exclude’. To make this point Wellman uses a comparison with the rights of the individual. He argues that it is unethical to force an individual to associate in the marital or religious realm, so we should not force a national community to associate with those outside its jurisdiction. He notes that the within the modern-day liberal state, we have a ‘firmly settled conviction’ that ‘each of us enjoys a morally privileged position of dominion over our self-regarding affairs’. Wellman bases his theory on Elizabeth Anderson 1999 work What is the Point of Equality?, which he quotes as demonstrating the negative human right ‘to whatever capabilities are necessary to enable them to avoid or escape entanglement in oppressive social relationships’.

This reasoning understands it as permissible for a democratic state to discriminate by geography of birth, and thus essentially by luck, in order to maintain a particularly beneficial political structure. Although Wellman acknowledges that in an ideal world we would fulfil the wishes of ‘luck egalitarianism’, he claims that what is ‘more worrisome’ is the maintenance of intrastate democracy, rather than the conciliation of interstate inequality.

The ‘right to exclude’ argument only holds up if we are to assume that exclusion is necessary to maintain and facilitate the democratic state. As noted previously, both the Realist and Liberal schools of thought dictate that the international system is characterised by anarchy. If we understand this to be true, then without geographical discrimination the democratic state would capitulate under the weight of the unpredictable human agent.  Wellman uses this assumption to dismiss any possibility of universal democracy, arguing that geographically particular state citizens have more to lose in Carens’ world of anarchy than do foreigners.

It is, as Cole identifies, a ‘self-interested amoralism’.

This is evidenced by Theresa May’s speech quoted at the outset of this article, the aim of the democratic state is ‘to protect, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy’. The objective here is simple: to maintain the particular democracy, not to chase a universal unbounded ideal.

The Equality Argument 

This thesis defending the necessity of border controls to preserve the democratic state can in no way be married to our analysis of literal democracy. By definition of its particularity, the democratic state is a paradoxical term in its literal sense.

If we take the right to equal human influence as a given, and fairly distribute kratos amongst the demos without this discrimination, then there is no democratic argument that state borders must be maintained.

Even if we are to assume the particular notion of ‘state democracy’ as necessary to prevent anarchy, there is still room in this modern construct for states to be more or less democratic. A key characteristic of a successful democracy is found in its degree of representation. The Economic Intelligence Unit, for example, counts ‘voter turnout’ as one of its five tenets of a successful democracy’ . Throughout history of the democratic state, the enfranchised electorate has continued to expand to further this representation. The natural progression therefore, would be to disband discriminatory border controls and enable the free-flow of immigration. This would increase the number of democratic participants, and therefore improve the quality of national democracy. As Carens put it ‘if people want to sign the social contract, they should be permitted to do so’.

This argument depends on two key assumptions: Firstly, it assumes that this is possible, it dismisses Hobbesian Realism and hopes that we may avoid anarchy. As Rawls asserts, all liberties first depend on public order and security. Carens, following Rawls’ line of reasoning, dismisses possible anarchy as a justification for democratic borders. He states that ‘restrictions would be justified only to the extent necessary to preserve public order’, but that this extent is as yet unknown as we no evidence that this would insight chaos. As we have seen from our study of Aristotle and Herodotus, although it has always been particular, the functioning democracy predates the implementation of border controls.

Even if we submit to the anarchy argument in the globalised world of the 21st century, the hypothetical possibility of a threat to public order is not enough to justify our current situation. Even if we could prove the necessity of borders to prevent chaos, this argument should not be bound in absolutist terms. It is not a case of absolute border control or absolute freedom of movement. Enforcement of particular borders would only be justified in so far as they are required to preserve order. It would not justify the unlimited use of border control by the particular demos.

Secondly, and perhaps a more profound caveat, is that we are assuming we want to maintain the best possible state democracy, rather than our current construction. The answer to our question relies firmly on this distinction. If we are looking simply to maintain our current particular formula, then the argument in favour of borders is a logical means to this end. If we are looking to maintain the most efficient system of democracy within a state, then border control becomes surplus to requirement only unto the point that it prevents chaos.


From our analysis we may draw a number of conclusions. Firstly we have noted the ‘unbounded’ nature of literal democracy, and consequently the paradox inherent in the geographically particular democratic state. Secondly we have understood the practical necessity of defining a particular demos due to the anarchic nature of the international environment. In doing so we have concluded that the modern concept of the nation- state uses control of its borders in order to maintain its conception of democracy. We have however, demonstrated that a truly efficient democracy would disband its border controls to the extent possible without submitting to anarchy. Further research in this field may look to quantify the minimum extent to which democratic state borders are necessary to prevent international anarchy, and to examine the practical application of such a transition in our modern world.

Image Courtesy of  The Central Intelligence Agency

Key Sources:

J. H. Carens. 1987. ‘Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders’ in The Review of Politics, Vol 49, No. 2.

A. Abizadeh. 2008. ‘Democratic Theory and Border Coercion: No Right to Unilaterally Control Your Own Borders’ in Political Theory, Vol . 36 No. 1.

C. Wellman. ‘Immigration and Freedom of Association’ in Ethics, Vol. 199, No. 1.

P. Cole. 2008. ‘Taking Moral Egalitarianism Seriously: Egalitarianism and Immigration Controls’ in Journal of International Political Theory. Vol 8. No 1.

J. Rawls. 1971. Justice.


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