What is Democracy? (46): The Boundary Problem

Most discussions about democracy take one thing for granted: that the composition of the group of people who (have to) govern themselves democratically is already fixed. The topics discussed are:

  • how can these people govern themselves democratically, or more democratically?
  • which procedures, institutions or voting systems should be used to guarantee the highest level of democracy?
  • is representative democracy best, or should there be some kind of <a href="http://direct democracy?
  • which are the prerequisites for an adequate or perfect democracy (education, free speech etc.)?
  • what happens to the minorities within this group of people?
  • etc.

What is forgotten in all such discussions is that the composition of the group of people governing themselves democratically has an enormous importance. This composition is of course established by boundaries or borders. These boundaries are prerequisites for any democratic decision: before such a decision is possible or even conceivable, there has to be a prior decision on who the “demos” is, on who is included in and excluded from the group that is supposed to govern itself democratically.

There is no problem when the democratic decisions of the group are strictly self-regarding; the “boundary problem” arises when the groups takes democratic decisions that affect outsiders, those who have been excluded from the demos by the initial boundary decision. And that happens quite often. Groups then take decisions that have consequences for other people who have had no say in the matter. Sometimes this happens inadvertently, but other times the boundary decision has been made precisely in such a manner that the outsiders have been excluded on purpose. An example of the former case is the decision by a democratic country to exploit its rainforest for wood exports, impacting the global climate. An example of the latter is the disenfranchisement of felons and the subsequent democratic decision to impose forced labor on prisoners.

This last example already indicates that the boundary problem isn’t limited to national frontiers. These national frontiers obviously raise important problems (and not only when they are contested, as in the case of the occupied territories in Palestine where the excluded Palestinians have to live with the decision of democratic Israel), but other, less material boundaries do so as well. In many cases, the prior boundary decision effectively determines (and in some cases is meant to determine) the consequent democratic decisions. When blacks were disenfranchised under the apartheid regime in South Africa, then this determined – and was intended to determine – the nature of the democratic decisions taken by non-blacks.

As is clear from these examples, the boundary problems arises when the decision-makers don’t include all those who are affected by the decisions. The boundary problem therefore violates a basic democratic principle, namely self-government and self-control. The purpose of democracy is precisely the avoidance of heteronomy, the political subjection of a community to the rule of another power or to an external law. The boundary problem can mean the reintroduction of – intended or unintended – heteronomy. Boundaries are obviously necessary for the creation of democracy – no democracy without a fixed demos, and no demos with boundaries, exclusion and inclusion – but they can also undo it, namely when they exclude people who are affected by the decisions of those who are included.

The rule that we should try to include in the demos all those who are affected by democratic decisions sounds good in theory but raises problems of its own. For example, it’s never clear beforehand who will be affected by a decision, and hence it’s impossible to include all those who may be affected. In addition, the affected population is extremely different from one decision to another, meaning that the rule would force us to radically reconsider and alter the demos for each decision. That seems practically impossible. And finally, the affected population may be very far away, physically, or may cover the entire world population, including those not yet born. Again, difficult if not impossible to solve this in practice.

Bob Goodin, who has thought about this a lot more than me,  states that we may perhaps not be able to always include all those affected by all decisions, but there is less and more. He states that over-inclusiveness is less of a problem than under-inclusiveness, and proposes some practical ways in which to promote inclusiveness.

Another way to solve the boundary problem is international democracy – i.e. the creation of democratically governed cooperative inter-state institutions. This can solve the problem of negative externalities imposed by the democratic decisions of one state on other states.

We can also do something about the boundary problem by granting immigrants some degree of voting rights. Immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees typically have no voting rights, even in the most democratic of countries. This is exacerbated by the often very restrictive citizenship application rules. And, finally, issues of global justice are also instances of the boundary problem. Decisions by rich countries regarding import quotas, free trade arrangements etc. obviously impact the poor in other parts of the world.

There is also another problem, similar to the boundary problem. People may not be de iure excluded from the demos, but de facto. I’m thinking here of so-called permanent minorities. Permanent minorities are groups of people who, although not officially disenfranchised, are always subject to the decisions of majorities.  Federalism would allow those permanent minorities that are regionally concentrated, to have self-government. When they are allowed, in a federal system, to make their own self-regarding decisions, they will no longer be affected by national decisions over which they have almost no influence, not because of a lack of voting rights, but because of a lack of voting weight. Federalism can solve the problem of a minority negatively affected by the decisions of a majority, not because it is disenfranchised but because it is a permanent minority.


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