Borders and Quaker Values -- Further Reflections

By Kenneth Boulding
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 1, Number 3 (Spring 1991)
Issue theme: "A world without borders?"

I was on the committee that produced the report on "Borders and Quaker Values" being republished in the Spring 1991 issue of The Social Contract. It was a very interesting experience. The group was fairly diverse. At the beginning there was a rather sharp cleavage between those who believe that borders should be abolished and those, like myself, who feel that borders have some value. The final report broke down that particular cleavage very nicely. The problem of national borders remains, however, as a question involving strange moral ambivalence. The problem can be resolved partly with a recognition of the mutual legitimation of a border.

The problem of borders, of course, goes far beyond national or political boundaries. Perhaps the most fundamental border is a skin, or something like it, which divides what is inside an organism from what is outside. This almost always has some peculiar characteristics. The skin of virtually every living creature is in some sense an organ with distinctive properties and composition, like the bark of a tree and the skins of fruits and vegetables. Even the cell has something like a skin. In living creatures the skin has some function in protecting what is inside from unwanted invasion. Certainly flailing is one of the more horrible forms of death.

When it comes to ecosystems, the boundary is a little less clear. A pond clearly has boundaries where the water meets land or air, and subboundaries of the depth. It is clear that without boundaries we would not have variety--everything would be one indistinguishable mush. Insofar as we put a high human value on variety, which is almost the core of the environmental ideology, then obviously boundaries have a value.

When it comes to political, social and economic systems, boundaries, again, are a kind of "skin" and a maintainer of variety. The whole concept of property rests very much on the legitimation of boundaries by mutual agreement of the parties concerned. Crime, indeed, is very much associated with the violation of boundaries. Rape is a violation of the boundary of the human body. Burglary is a violation of the boundary of the home. Invasion is a violation of the boundaries of the state. One suspects that a very large proportion of legal actions involves some sort of violation of perceived boundaries. It makes a great deal of difference, however, whether boundaries are perceived as mutually agreed upon or as imposed by one party on another. Exchange is impossible without property. Exchange consists of the transfer of each item exchanged from being inside one property boundary to being inside another. Before I buy a shirt the shirt is within the property boundary of the store and the money is within my property boundary. After the exchange, the shirt is within my property boundary and the money is inside the store's property boundary. Unless these property boundaries are respected, exchange is almost impossible and turns into theft.

"The question as to what

property boundaries should be

respected and legitimized is

an important aspect of ideologies."

The question as to what property boundaries should be respected and legitimated is an important aspect of ideologies. The anti-slavery movement denied the legitimacy of one human being's ability to take another human being inside his property boundary. Marxism denies the legitimacy of private property or economic assets.

The question of the legitimacy and mutual acceptance of national boundaries is very significant in the problem of war and peace. I have argued1 that over the last 150 years or so we have seen a remarkable growth in stable peace between independent nations, beginning perhaps in Scandinavia in the mid-nineteenth century, expanding to North America by the 1870s, and to Western Europe and most of the Pacific after the Second World War--now with a good chance of spreading all around the temperate zone, thanks to Mr. Gorbachev. Stable peace may be defined as a relation between two independent states, neither of which has any intention

"A very difficult question arises

when the different rates of

population growth of different

sectors of a heterogeneous state

threaten an old equilibrium"

of invading or going to war with the other. The conditions for this seem to be fairly simple. The major condition is that national boundaries be taken off the agenda except by mutual agreement. The 49th Parallel is a good example. A second condition is that there should be a minimum degree of intervention of one nation in another nation's internal affairs. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where this boundary lies. With the United Nations, the legitimation of existing boundaries has become at least a world model, even if it is not always observed (for instance, between the United States and Panama). The response to the violation of the boundary between Iraq and Kuwait is a good example of the world-wide commitment to the illegitimacy of unilateral boundary change.

It is an interesting question as to whether what might be called "natural boundaries," like rivers, mountains and seacoasts, are easier to legitimate than are artificial ones, like the 49th Parallel or the boundaries of most African states. The very stability of African and Latin American boundaries over the last few decades, arbitrary and inconvenient as many of them are (for they divide many linguistic, cultural and religious groups), is a tribute to the legitimation of existing boundaries. Perhaps it hints that the national state can only be legitimated in the future if it is recognized as arbitrary.

The problem of trade and migration restrictions

at national boundaries remains something of a thorn in the flesh of boundary-less Mother Earth. The spread of free trade diminishes the significance of national boundaries. Immigration restrictions, however, still remain the source of great controversy. The critical question is whether there is an optimum degree of heterogeneity for the national state. Homogenous states like Japan and Sweden are certainly easier to manage, but heterogenous states may be more exciting. A very difficult question arises when the different rates of population growth of different sectors of a heterogenous state threaten an old equilibrium. Lebanon is a good case in point, and even the Soviet Union where the Muslims are out-breeding the Russians. This is a case where boundaries badly drawn may be the source of great conflict, the only solution to which would seem to be the development of an environmental point of view which encourages the love of variety. The question then becomes one of whether we can transform "You're different; how frightening!" into "You're different; how interesting!" There is at least some indication that this may be happening around the world, which will bring people to realize that a great deal of existing conflict over boundaries is really unnecessary and is dependent on an illusory set of values.

1 K.E. Boulding, Stable Peace (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978).

About the author

Kenneth Boulding, Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University

of Colorado at Boulder, served in the American Friends Service Committee group that

wrote the foregoing article. We asked him for further thoughts on the concept of "borders."

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