Justification Behind Democratic Unilateral Border Control

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Jasper Danielson, Queens University.

Edited by Sandrine Jacquot

When can a democratic country justifiably close their borders unilaterally? At first, this question seems silly — why would there be a scenario in which they couldn’t? Yet, the answer to this seemingly straightforward inquiry is slightly more convoluted than it might originally appear to be. As an aside, it will be important for the comprehension of this article that a few terms are clearly defined. The term ‘demos’ is described as the “populace of a democracy” [1]. It refers to the entire collection of individuals who actually hold the right to vote in the democracy’s decisions. The term ‘unilateral’ refers simply to an action that was taken without outside consideration [2]. In the context of this article then, a ‘unilateral border closure’ implies that the border’s closure was decided only by individuals within the country.  With that being said, in a democracy, in order for a political decision to be justified, it must both be voted upon and receive a majority of votes. It follows then that for a democratic country to justifiably close their borders, a majority of voters must agree to the closure. This part is straightforward. However, past this point is where the situation becomes tricky –  as the demos, those who actually hold the right to vote, still remain unclear. This detail is pertinent when considering the unique implications and resulting border-closure policies of different types of demoi.  As such, in order to determine whether or not a democratic country can justifiably close their borders unilaterally, we must first determine which type of demos is favourable. With this in mind, two approaches to defining the demos, according to Arash Abizadeh and Sarah Song respectively, will be considered: 1) the demos is unbound, and 2) the demos is bound. To begin, we will consider Arash Abizadeh’s theory of the unbound demos. Abizadeh’s paper, Democratic Theory and Border Coercion: No Right to Unilaterally Control Your Own Borders, argues that, in a democracy, any individual that is affected by a decision should be given an input into the decision’s outcome. Abizadeh maintains this point through an explanation of autonomy and its importance. In essence, he claims that all individuals have a right to autonomy — the right to give their input into decisions whose outcome influences them — since their lives should not be determined by others [3]. Seeing as a country’s border closure prevents foreigners from entering, these foreigners cannot be entirely autonomous as they are not able to fully make their own travel-related decision(s). They are neither allowed to enter the country nor have a say in whether the country’s border should be closed in the first place. As such, it would be undemocratic to deprive foreigners of their vote as they are affected by the border closure. If they are not given the right to have an input, they are being denied their right to autonomy as their travel-related decisions become solely determined by others. Thus, since Abizadeh claims that autonomy is a necessary condition of democracy and that every individual is only fully autonomous when given the right to vote over every decision that affects them, he asserts that an unbound demos is more democratic than a bound demos. Under this assumption, a democratic country could never justifiably close their borders unilaterally as individuals residing within the country are not the only ones affected by the country’s border closure. Next, we will consider Sarah Song’s theory of the bound demos in which a democracy must only give those within a country’s geographical border the right to vote on the country’s decisions. Song, in her paper The Boundary Problem in Democratic Theory: Why the De­mos Should Be Bounded by the State, argues this idea under the premise that political equality is as necessary to a democracy as voting is [4]. That is, in order for a democracy to adequately represent the entire country’s opinion, not only must each individual be given the right to vote but all voters must be politically equal. This is a significant point to consider as she then claims that political equality can only be successfully achieved with a stable, bound demos (Song, 2012). She argues that this is the case as a bound demos ensures that all individuals are aware of and subservient to the laws that govern them (Song, 2012). Individuals in a country with a bound demos must all conform equally to the same set of laws — those of the country in which they reside — rather than each having to conform with their own unique set of laws derived from those of multiple countries whose decisions all affect them. If each individual must follow a set of laws according only to the decisions that affect them, no two individuals would be required to follow the same set of laws as no two individuals are affected by the same decisions. This would result in great political inequalities as individuals would be governed in different ways according to different laws. Alternatively, when every individual follows an identical ruleset, no individual can be legally advantaged over any other. It is important to note, however, that this legal equality is limited only to laws and does not account for prejudices from which many other inequalities arise. Regardless, it follows then that the equality in terms of rules established by the bound demos, results in equality in terms of politics (at the very least more equality in terms of politics than had the equality in terms of rule not been established) as it leads to more equitable outcomes. Thus, because Song asserts that political equality is a necessary condition of democracy and that this equality can only be achieved in a bound demos, she asserts that a bound demos is more democratic than an unbound demos. Under this premise, a country could justifiably close their borders unilaterally whenever the majority of those residing within its borders agree to do so as the country does not require foreign input. After considering both theories, it is apparent that each one idealizes the significance of a different democratic principle. The unbound demos is favourable under the premise that autonomy is the most important aspect of democracy, while the bound demos is favourable under the same premise for political equality. Following this context, there is a clear trade-off between autonomy and political equality when considering the two theories, yet one could reasonably argue for the importance of either. Nevertheless, a clear front-runner still remains as each theory is only as good as its real-world applicability — because while theories are great, they are of little use if they cannot actually be implemented. Since it is impossible to know which individuals will be affected by the outcome of any given decision, a country cannot realistically account for every voter in an unbound demos. The country simply could not be certain which individuals might have their autonomies infringed upon. Alternatively, if the country gave the vote to any foreigners whose autonomy is not infringed upon, the vote cannot reasonably be deemed to be democratic as its outcome would not be truly representative of the demos’ opinion. As such, the unbound demos would be impossible to implement and thus would be of little value to consider. With this in mind, the bound demos is undoubtedly favourable as its implementation would allow for the most political equality and thus be the most democratic. In conclusion, although the trade-off between autonomy and political equality could be reasonably argued for both ways, it is of little importance as the unbound demos is but an unattainable concept. This is even more evident when considering the fact that no real-world democratic system makes use of this theory. Regardless of its theoretical benefits, it remains unachievable in practice. Therefore, it becomes apparent that a democratic country can justifiably close their borders unilaterally at any time, as long as the majority of those residing within its borders agree to do so as the bound demos is favourable and the most democratic. 


[1] – Lexico Dictionaries. (n.d.). Demos: Meaning & definition for UK English. Lexico Dictionaries | English. 

[2] – Lexico Dictionaries. (n.d.). Unilateral: Meaning & definition for UK English. Lexico Dictionaries | English. 

[3] – Abizadeh, A. (2008). Democratic Theory and Border Coercion: No Right to Unilaterally Control Your Own Borders. Political Theory, 36(1), 37–65.

[4] – Song, S. (2012). The boundary problem in democratic theory: Why the demos should be bounded by the state. International Theory, 4(1), 39-68.