Bernard E. Harcourt | Eliminating Borders

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The rich conversation at Abolition Democracy 12/13 underscores the often-implicit or unspoken distinction, in debates over borders, between jurisdictional boundaries for purposes of democratic self-governance and territorial borders for purposes of migration. The difference between boundaries and borders—one that Seyla Benhabib has often emphasized, see Borders, Boundaries, and Citizenship” (2005)—is essential to a proper understanding of the ongoing immigration debates, insofar as it helps to narrow and identify the real point of contention.


For purposes of democratic self-governance, inevitably, it’s necessary to articulate jurisdictional limits in geographical space. Although it is imaginable that, in the future, humans may be able to opt into governance schemes virtually, by virtue of their Internet address alone, we are not there yet—and are thus still bound today to the analog, to notions of physical space.

As a result, there inevitably arises the need to define the boundaries of governance regimes in order to determine how individuals, within those boundaries, will make decisions concerning, for instance, the provision of health care, wage regulations, taxation, and other political and social questions. The existence of boundaries, however, does not require a Westphalian notion of the nation-state, nor even the existence of separate states. The boundary, for instance, could be the earth. Jurisdictional limits might fall along existing state lines, or could be entirely reimagined according to more place-based logics (as Paulina Ochoa Espejo proposes).

In arguing against identity-based boundaries and nationalistic preferences, Ochoa Espejo challenges us to reexamine the location of boundaries and the values that underlie the placement of boundaries. This requires a reckoning with colonial history and global inequalities. But the fact that existing boundaries today are the product of imperialism and conquest—and in that sense, are entirely unjustified, as Harsha Walia correctly argues—does not eliminate the need for a jurisdictional boundary, nor does it tranche the question of how and where to place boundaries, or whether to have a single or multiple boundaries.


By contrast, the term border can and should be limited—and for purposes of clarity here, in this epilogue, will be limited—to the question of migration across a jurisdictional boundary. When it is so defined, it becomes clear that there is no distinction between arguing for “open borders” or “no borders.” When the term relates only to migration—i.e., the physical crossing of a boundary and entry into another territorial jurisdiction—the argument for “open borders” collapses into the argument to have “no borders.” Joseph Carens’s normative argument for “open borders” is essentially an argument to retain boundaries but not borders.

There can nevertheless be differences in the temporal dimension of the argument for eliminating borders. Joseph Carens argues for no borders as a normative matter (although he styles his argument as “open borders,” not drawing the distinction here between boundaries and borders), but allows for political judgment as to when exactly to eliminate borders. When asked whether to immediately open the US-Mexico border, Carens responded that President Biden should not do that immediately because it would play into the hands of Donald Trump and his followers, who would gain too much political advantage and possibly return to power, thus closing all borders. The particular circumstances call for political judgment as to what will actually bring about the elimination of borders—which, Carens argues, is not the forte of theorists.

Paulina Ochoa Espejo effectively advocates for no borders as well, and the placement of jurisdictional boundaries in a more place-specific manner. Her central intervention in On Borders concerns the placement of jurisdictional boundaries, but effectively proposes the elimination of borders for purposes of migration. When asked about the US-Mexico border today, Ochoa Espejo argued for immediately getting rid of borders by means of a visa system at the jurisdictional boundary: in other words, no border, with the granting of visas at the US-Mexico boundary. On this view, the question of how individuals with visas will be allowed to participate in the social and political life within the boundaries of a jurisdiction is a question for self-governance, not for migration policy.

Seyla Benhabib resisted doing away with borders in order to protect the social welfare regimes of social democratic liberal democracies. Benhabib conditions open or no borders on there being appropriate treaties dealing with labor and welfare, to ensure that provident countries do not disintegrate under the weight of their more generous regulatory schemes. Incidentally, it was repeatedly noted that the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues for open borders to allow free trade in commodities and the free flow of labor, in order to drive down wages in industrialized countries. That is precisely the danger that Benhabib is trying to prevent.


None of the participants at 12/13 contested the need to abolish ICE and the violent, militarized enforcement of borders. Even those favoring the retention of borders (subject to eventual agreements on welfare and labor) opposed punitive policing of borders. In that sense, all of the participants to the 12/13 debate agreed with what Ochoa Espejo wrote, in the title of her blog post for 12/13: “Abolish ICE!”

The Central Question

These clarifications help to narrow and identify the central remaining question in contention, namely whether borders are necessary to protect the self-governance regimes within defined boundaries. That is the key question that emerged from the seminar.

It would take a full-length book treatment to properly address this question, but for my part, as a place holder for now, I come down on the side of no borders, believing that we should be able to figure out proper mechanisms of democratic self-governance to ensure our equal wellbeing, livelihood, and coexistence. I would argue that this calls for a turn toward coöperation, both within and between bounded regimes of self-governance. It would call for a massive intrastate and interstate redistribution of wealth and resources—at both the domestic and global level—to ensure that people on either side of boundaries have livable conditions and equal wellbeing. That, I contend, depends on a turn to coöperation.

Bernard Harcourt