July 24, 2017

Barbwire, tanks, apricots and the borders of our garden

In this column Gianfranco Pellegrino thinks about the deep origins of borders. They are part of nature or a convention? An idea, a value or an ideological dream?

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What is a border? Is it a piece of nature, an architectural item, or a convention? Is it an idea, a value, an ideological dream? What is this thing leading serious politicians to make unserious threats, to go back on, to mount weird and indecent campaigns?

A border is not a piece of nature, of course – even though some natural elements may work as borders: seas are difficult to trespass, mountains difficult to overcome. But were nature a border, Sicily would be outside Italy, and the Apennines would set two countries apart. More, if you go at a border, you see only soldiers, and fences. No significant pieces of nature.A border, then, is a convention, a function – a decision taken to defend something. But what? Carl Schmitt regarded borders as the core of politics – a border sets limits to any given community, in opposition to other communities lying beyond borders, and this opposition is the essence of politics. For less extreme authors, a border helps States to work well – it helps them to have exclusive power within a given territory, thereby giving their citizens rights and goods (protection, social justice, security, and so on and so forth) – here is the place where Italians can be treated for free (almost for free), where they can call the police if injured, where they ought to pay taxes to do these and other things. This approach is defended by Anna Stiltz and Allen Buchanan. The State has territorial rights, for them, namely the right to have a territorially limited jurisdiction.

For others, a border sets limits to a culture – here is the place where people speak in Italian, where mommies are behaving in specific ways, where criminal gangs hold a grip on large territories …. This approach is defended by David Miller, who claims that States have a discretionary right to limit access to their territory in order to defend national culture, except in cases when serious violations of the human rights of asylum seekers are at stake. Other scholars claim that borders set limits to independence, autonomy and self-determination for individuals and groups – here is the place where Italians take decisions, by voting and getting votes, by public discussion, and they are affected by majoritarian decisions. Margaret Moore defends this approach. For many people, finally, borders are barriers, invisible walls (sometimes, even visible ones, dspite artificial), preventing them from getting their wishes – sometimes, preventing them from having a better life, or a life that is better than the hard life they are currently leading, sometimes preventing them from any chance of survival.

Possibly, borders are each of these things, the same time, or only some of them. It does not matter. Nor does it matter to decide whether borders are really needed to achieve substantial values — such as State defense of citizens’ rights and distributive justice, or the defense of a culture, or the possibility of self-determination. It would be necessary, though, to uncover some hidden assumptions of the debates we are engaged in these days. In order to do this, we need an acceptable justification of why – for many politicians and ordinary citizens – the values listed above are weightier than other values. Why are our rights and welfare, our culture, our self-determination more valuable, more important than others’ rights, cultures and freedoms? This is the issue.

Borders enclose, restrict, limit, make certain rights and goods particular rights and goods. Possibly, borders work like families and morally relevant groups. It is obvious that my kids have rights and I have the correlative duties, it is obvious that I can prefer my friends to strangers when planning a dinner, it is obvious that my fellow-citizens have rights and duties deriving from our shared relations as co-nationals. But what is the extent of this priority? Can the rights of my kids override the sufferance of other kids? I pay taxes in order to give others’ kids certain goods and rights. It seems that the borders of family work in limiting love – I do not pay taxes in order to pay people to love my kids. However, if I get troubled, if I succumb to health or social problems, my kids can receive care from people paid by the State, and through my taxes. If so, why should State borders work to say: this person can enter, this person cannot, this person can get a good wage, this person cannot, this person can lead an autonomous life, this person cannot .

Would you put an army tank and a barbwire to defend your garden from hungry people who could steal the apricots blossoming there? And would you do it merely because others did, and because they did not contribute to your expenses to cultivate the garden? I wouldn’t. And many decent people wouldn’t, too.

The author

Gianfranco Pellegrino

Gianfranco Pellegrino is a researcher at LUISS’s Political Science Department


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