Review Politics

Democracy With or Without Borders

About: Benjamin Boudou, Le dilemme des frontières : éthique et politique de l’immigration, EHESS

by Camille Pascal , 2 January 2020
translated by Kate McNaughton
with the support of Institut français

Can a state exclude people in the name of the common good? What gives legitimacy to definitions of borders and belonging? In this work of political theory, B. Boudou argues for a pragmatic, democratic and shifting approach to borders: only shared interests can define a community.

In this book, Benjamin Boudou, a political theory expert at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, analyses what he calls the “border dilemma”. This refers to the tension inherent to our liberal democracies, which are caught between the principles they value and the political practices they adopt. On the one hand, liberal democracies defend the principles of liberty and equality: in an ideal democratic world, every individual would be free to come and go wherever they liked. On the other hand, liberal democracies implement policies that contradict these principles. In our current world, democratic states strictly control freedom of movement, not everybody can very easily cross borders into democratic countries, and equality is only guaranteed for a small section of the population: the country’s citizens. This tension between principles and practices has dramatic consequences: thousands of deaths on the doorsteps of democratic countries and the violation of human rights. The question Benjamin Boudou asks is as follows: how can a state justify actions that have deleterious consequences? Is the power of a state legitimate if it contradicts the very principles that state defends?

“What right does a political community have to grant itself the privilege of defining its borders and thus preventing foreigners from crossing them?” (p. 16)

The Role of Political Theory

Benjamin Boudou suggests we might answer these questions through the prism of political theory, a discipline located at the crossroads of political principles and practices. Political theory is characterised by a two-pronged approach. First a heuristic approach (p. 38-42): political theory tries to understand why specific political agents adopt specific political practices. It works on the hypothesis that the motivations behind these various agents’ actions are perceptible in their discourse. The aim is then to study the ways in which these agents justify their actions to establish the principles and arguments they are defending. Then comes a critical and ethical approach (p. 45-49): political theory evaluates these justifications by analysing the coherence of the arguments employed in relation to the principles being defended—an incoherent argument often reveals that it is based on principles that are not justified and therefore calls into question the legitimacy of the agents formulating it. Benjamin Boudou’s aim in this work is to apply this two-pronged approach to the border dilemma.

The Debate Surrounding Open and Closed Borders

This type of analysis must start from the observation that borders are social and political constructions. Any territory defined by borders is the sign of a political community, i.e. a

“specific way of connecting individuals to each other” (p. 56). And it is this specific way of connecting individuals to each other which determines whether a community favours a policy of open or closed borders. The relationship of a political community to that which is foreign to it therefore depends above all on what this community views as its “common good” (p. 85)

meaning the dominant values in the name of which it defines its borders, the connection between its members, and its connection to that which is foreign to it. The heuristic aim of political theory is to reconstitute the various types of common good on which political communities are built in order to understand how these communities justify their relationship to that which is foreign to them.

Among political communities that favour a closed borders policy, we observe three types of common good. The first is the Nation. A political community that aspires to be “national” is defined by a set of shared meanings, a culture, an identity. Members of the community are connected by emotional and political bonds, and these bonds justify a “logic of interiority” (p. 97) and a “logic of belonging” (p. 106): preference is systematically given to members of the community. It is therefore justified to keep one’s borders closed to foreigners, since they do not belong to the community.

The Republic constitutes a second form of common good. The republican political community is defined by active participation in a “common political culture” (p. 118). Members of the community are connected by a certain idea of liberty, “non-domination” (p. 119), and this idea justifies a “logic of consent” (p. 126): any person who actively participates in this common political culture belongs to the community. It is therefore justified to condition entry into one’s country on a strict undertaking to get involved in this pre-established political culture.

Political and legal institutions constitute a third possible incarnation of the common good. The political community is then defined by a “political, legal and institutional project” (p. 134). Members of the community are connected through a set of rights (freedom of association, the right to property, the right to autonomy) and these rights justify a “principle of self-determination” (p. 134): the members of the community have a right to determine their own political destiny. They can therefore decide to close down (but also open up) their borders free of any foreign influence.

Within political communities that favour an open borders policy, we observe two types of common good. The first is hospitality. A political community that is driven by an ideal of hospitality is defined by its acceptance of a certain number of cosmopolitical norms, which include the duty of “civic hospitality” (p. 168). This view implies that every individual has a “right to belonging” (p. 165) meaning a right to be connected to a political community, to a state. Any stateless person thus has a right to asylum. It is therefore justified to take in asylum seekers, if only temporarily.

In “open” political communities, freedom of movement is a second aspect of the common good. The political community is then defined by the non-restriction on freedom of movement, which is seen as a “fundamental freedom” (p. 193). Members of the community are free to come and go wherever they wish and this freedom justifies a symmetry between emigration and immigration: members of the community should be able to come and go on whatever territory they choose. It is therefore justified to open up borders in order to allow each individual to exercise their freedom of movement.

Deconstructing the Premises of the Debate

The critical and ethical aim of political theory is then to evaluate these arguments by analysing their coherence and deconstructing their premises. For Benjamin Boudou, neither of the two types of policy is safe from being called into question in various ways. In particular, the fundamental principles that organise the arguments in favour of closing borders all rely on at least two fallacious premises, namely “methodological nationalism” (p. 62) and the “contractualist fable” (p. 73).

The first premise rests on the idea that the nation state is a “given that does not require interrogation” (p. 65), so that the power emanating from the political community is automatically seen to be legitimate. But the borders of nation states are not based on pre-established communities: the people who found themselves within the borders of nation states at the time they were founded were brought together even though they may not necessarily have belonged to the same ethnic and cultural community. Nowadays, these people, the nationals of these states, have a monopoly over the definition of national identity and political culture, even though “they have not, by definition, participated in it either” (p. 109). Whether we are talking about a set of shared meanings, a common political culture or a political, legal and institutional project, it seems that none of these common goods is justified, since the people who invoke them are relying on an idea which is in itself unfounded, namely that of the nation state. Benjamin Boudou then asks the following question: why should foreigners not have the right to take part in defining the common good of a community since it seems that there is at first sight no possible justification of its borders?

The second premise rests on the idea that the nation-state was founded on the “consent of the people” (p. 77), so that the power emanating out of such a state’s political community is based on the freedom of association of its members. On the one hand, this idealised social ontology hides “the arbitrary nature of the power of the few over the many” (p. 77) and erases the “structures of domination” between political elites and ordinary citizens in particular (p. 79). On the other hand, the people who happened to be located within the borders of nation-states at the moment they were founded were subjected to the authority of a sovereign without consenting to it, because they lived in the subjugated geographic area and could not leave it due to a lack of resources. The problem as Benjamin Boudou sees it is that this myth still operates when it comes to justifying borders and their levels of openness. Nowadays, it is a country’s “nationals” who take part in defining its border policy. Here again, there is something inconsistent about it being these people who decide on whether or not foreigners will be welcomed in, when the premise which is used to legitimate their power is unjustified. Why should foreigners not have a right to intervene in the establishment of migratory regimes, since nationals themselves did not initially choose to come together and are therefore no more in a legitimate position to decide whether or not the borders are open than said foreigners?

But the fundamental principles organising the arguments in favour of open borders also rely on certain premises. The concept of hospitality, for example, is an “anachronistic concept” which has “antimodern characteristics” (p. 158). Originally, hospitality was understood to mean a “gift or liberality” (p. 158). It depends on an individual decision to put oneself at another person’s service and “can therefore not be political” because it does not belong to the field of law (p. 159). Hospitality taken in its basic sense cannot refer to a legal obligation for a state to welcome in foreigners. It is never anything more than a voluntary obligation that a state imposes on itself—it cannot be imposed on said state. A state can therefore decide to include hospitality in its laws, but cannot force other states to do the same. In a world where migration is a global issue, this is problematic. Furthermore, hospitality is “incompatible with our liberal and democratic principles” (p. 160). In the original sense of hospitality, the relationship between hosts and guests is always unequal, since the guests must comply with the conditions of entry and exit and with the laws of the host country. Hospitality is thus always “a partial—in both senses of the word—practice and virtue” (p. 161).

Likewise, the arguments in defence of freedom of movement tend to neglect the issues of “unequal access to mobility” (p. 197) and of the “forms of exploitation” to which migrants are subjected in their host country (p. 198). Opening up the borders would doubtless allow those who can to exercise their freedom of movement, but it would not resolve the fact that the poorest people are not in a position to migrate—nor would it have any impact on the unequal treatment that is meted out to those who have been able to migrate. Freedom of movement would circumvent methodological nationalism, but would not allow us to combat the “prioritisation of the interests of citizens over those of foreigners”, which is illegitimate since the reasons for this prioritisation rest on the idea of the nation-state (p. 198).

Reconstructing a Democratic Project

Given the limitations of all of the arguments for or against open borders, Benjamin Boudou concludes his book with a normative suggestion. He suggests we take into account another kind of common good in order to establish what relationship to foreigners is the fairest: that of shared interests. A political community, or “public” in John Dewey’s definition, is defined by the “sharing of affection” (p. 204). The members of the community are linked by the fact that they are affected by one and the same situation and that they need to come together to act on it. The borders of a political community are not set in stone but are “debatable and revisable” (p. 205) depending on the various situations that affect each individual. Belonging to the community thus rests on the “principle of affected interests” (p. 207): “If my interests are at stake, I must have a say in terms of what affects them, otherwise I am subjected to them” (p. 217). The fact of being affected by a situation therefore implies a form of “taking into consideration” and “participation” (p. 217).

Benjamin Boudou suggests we apply this principle to the various situations affecting foreigners. At the international level, the principle requires us to open up borders to asylum seekers, because their fundamental interests are at risk. At the national level, the principle requires us to integrate foreign residents (right to vote, access to citizenship), because they are subject to the laws of the country in which they live. In all cases, the principle requires that any individual who is affected by a norm must be able to express their “democratic voice without necessarily having a right to integration” (p. 223). This could for example take the form of a “parliament of migrants” (p.227) in which representatives could be assigned to defend the interests of non-members.

While this normative suggestion is interesting, we might wish the author provided more details regarding the ways of applying the principle of affected interests. In particular, it is difficult to determine who is affected or not by a norm. We are also left with the open question of how to organise in practice the participation of all individuals affected. A central issue is that of language: how can we give a democratic voice to all individuals affected if they do not all speak the same language?

Likewise, the concept of common good that is called upon in this book is not without its tensions. Benjamin Boudou uses the term to refer to a set of values which we are trying to defend when we define the borders of a community. But the use of the singular form suggests that there is only one value on which a community can be constituted (hospitality, culture, freedom of movement…). This may seem debatable: a community, even if it homogenous, is always constituted on the basis of a set of principles that might well be in tension with each other. The various common goods listed in the book rather reflect a general direction towards which some communities tend because of the set of values they use to define themselves. However, this handful of flaws does not call into question the quality of the book’s argument. Benjamin Boudou is offering us here one of the most comprehensive works of political theory on the issues of the openness of borders and integrating foreigners. Inciting us to “free ourselves from binary oppositions and various biases” (p. 230), he adopts a pragmatic posture that we might justifiably wish were already more central to the debate surrounding the ethics of migration.

by Camille Pascal, 2 January 2020

To quote this article :

Camille Pascal, « Democracy With or Without Borders », Books and Ideas , 2 January 2020. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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