The making and unmaking of boundaries: What liberalism has to say

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74 Scopus citations


The Ethical Issues How to Ignore Them The making and unmaking of boundaries raises ethical issues because which side of a boundary people find themselves on can have profound consequences for their freedom, their welfare, their identity, and even their survival. Yet existing political theory, including liberal political theory, has remarkably little to say about the ethics of creating and changing boundaries. This deficiency stems from two shamelessly convenient simplifying assumptions. The first, which I call the <italic>congruence assumption</italic>, is that the membership boundaries of primary political communities and the geographical boundaries of primary political units (call them “states”) coincide. The second, which I call the <italic>perpetuity assumption</italic>, is that primary political units remain intact over time, that the only form of exit from existing states is by emigration (departure of people) rather than by fragmentation of the states themselves. Given these two assumptions, most of the more difficult ethical issues concerning the creation and changing of borders simply do not arise. Liberalism, which at least in its contemporary forms prides itself on accommodating pluralism, does not assume that the populations of existing states are homogeneous in all respects. But at least until very recently, liberal theorists have tended to assume that whatever pluralism exists within states can be accommodated within states – that is, without changing their boundaries. Classical liberalism tended to assume that a regime of universal rights, including preeminently freedom of association, religion, and expression, and rights to private property, is sufficient to accommodate pluralism within the boundaries of the state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationStates, Nations, and Borders
Subtitle of host publicationThe Ethics of Making Boundaries
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages31
ISBN (Electronic)9780511613937
ISBN (Print)0521819717, 9780521819718
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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