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.

Discrimination (1)

Discrimination, in its non-political and non-legal sense, simply means the recognition of differences. In the political and legal sense, it means unjustifiable differences in treatment between groups of people, most often the unjustifiable denial of the equal enjoyment of human rights.

Groups of people are discriminated because they have certain group-specific attributes that set them apart from the rest of society and that warrant, in the eyes of the people who are discriminating, less favorable treatment. One can make the following distinctions:

  • Discrimination can come in different degrees, affecting large or small numbers of people to a large or small extent: from government policy to an unspoken mentality of a small part of the population, and everything in between (such as states not acting to counter discrimination, very active and outspoken discrimination in some parts of the community, entrenched cultural practices such as the caste system etc.).
  • It can be exercised in different ways. People may be discriminated on the grounds of their race, gender etc. They can be discriminated in relatively harmless ways (denial of a promotion because of a likely pregnancy for example) or very brutal ways (slavery, denying of equal education etc.). They can also be discriminated in many different fields of life: education, employment, justice, health care etc.

Some people have the misfortune of finding themselves in a state which has an overt and active policy of discrimination, and in different discriminated groups at the same time (black lesbians in Apartheid South-Africa for example). As a result, they may also be discriminated in different fields of life at the same time (employment, family law, education etc.).

There are many types of discrimination, and the concept of discrimination is often linked to others such as racism, agism, sexism, xenophobia, intolerance, religious fundamentalism, genocide, ethnic cleansing etc. Whereas all these phenomena undoubtedly have a dose of discrimination, they are not the necessary result of discrimination. Discrimination can be much more limited.

One can distinguish between types of discrimination according to the groups that are discriminated, and the ways in which these groups are discriminated.


  • racial discrimination
  • gender discrimination
  • discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation
  • discrimination based on one’s language, culture or national origin
  • discrimination based on one’s religion or one’s status within a religion
  • discrimination based on one’s political convictions
  • age discrimination
  • health discrimination (e.g. discrimination of HIV patients, disabled persons or obese persons)
  • etc. (when it comes to cruelty, man’s imagination has no limits I’m afraid)


  • economic discrimination (e.g. persistent differences in poverty levels between groups)
  • employment discrimination (e.g. discrimination in career opportunities, pay, “Berufsverbot” etc.)
  • housing discrimination
  • family law discrimination (e.g. the inability of homosexuals to marry or to adopt)
  • education discrimination, different levels or quality of education for different groups
  • discrimination of the access to public service or elected positions
  • judicial discrimination, discrimination in the justice system
  • health discrimination, different levels or quality of healthcare for different groups
  • cultural practices such as honor killings, female genital mutilation,…
  • legal discrimination such as Jim Crow or segregation
  • etc.

Causes of discrimination:

  • racism, sexism etc.
  • a history of discrimination, creating a burden on future generations
  • immigration
  • xenophobia
  • recession or economic scarcity
  • education
  • cultural practices (e.g. the caste system)
  • religious doctrine
  • legislation (e.g. the Jim Crow laws or other types of legally enforced discrimination)
  • etc.

Article 2 of the Universal Declaration prohibits discrimination:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Although poverty has many causes, discrimination is undoubtedly one of them. Large differences in wealth between groups (for example racial groups) may indicate the existence of discrimination.

Statistics on the differences between races in incarceration or execution rates may indicate the existence of discrimination in the justice system, although these differences may have other causes besides discrimination, e.g. differences in poverty rates (see above), differences in levels of education etc. Of course, the latter differences may be caused by discrimination so that discrimination is indirectly the cause of the differences in the application of justice. Here again are some data on the situation in the US, showing that blacks, although they make up only 12% of the population, account for more than 1 in 3 of the prison population and of the executions. 5% of black men are in jail, compared to less than 1% of white men.



Blacks are also about twice as likely as whites to be a victim of a crime.

Cultural Rights (9): Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing is the violent displacement of an ethnic group from a particular territory in order to create an ethnically “clean” unit, i.e. a territorial unit composed of only one ethnic group. The means used to achieve ethnic unity are:

  • direct military force
  • police brutality
  • genocide
  • the threat of force
  • intimidation
  • rape
  • pogrom
  • demolition of housing, places of worship, infrastructure
  • discriminatory legislation or policies
  • tribal politics
  • economic exclusion
  • hate speech, propaganda
  • rewriting of history, fabrication of historical resentment
  • a combination of the above.

Given these various “tools”, it is not correct to equate ethnic cleansing with genocide. There are more or less violent forms of ethnic cleansing, although all forms contain some kind of force, otherwise one would speak merely of voluntary migration. Deportation or displacement of a group, even if effected by force, is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group.

Given the element of force it is correct to denounce all forms of ethnic cleansing, not only on the grounds of some kind of ideal of multiculturalism, but also on the grounds of the self-determination of the people involved, of their right to settle where they want, their freedom of movement etc. It is defined as a crime against humanity.

The best known cases of ethnic cleansing are:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s
  • Iraq during the Iraq war
  • India and Pakistan during their partition
  • The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict
  • Rwanda during the genocide
  • The relocation of Native American peoples from their traditional areas
  • The forced removals of non-white populations during the apartheid era
  • The Palestinian exodus
  • Central and Eastern Europe during and immediately after World War II
  • Darfur
  • etc.

However, it seems that this tactic has been known to humanity since a long time. Some even believe that the Neanderthals were victims of ethnic cleansing.

Some of the justifications given in defense of ethnic cleansing are:

  • To remove the conditions for potential and actual opposition. According to Mao Zedong, guerrillas among a civilian population are fish in water. By draining the water, one disables the fish.
  • To create a separate state for one ethnic group. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because one assumes that in such a state it is inevitable that some groups are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting-pot world with no clear territorial separation of groups within states, is the use of force.
  • To redeem a society that is literally “unclean” and “sick” because of the presence of inferior humans.