What's the problem with the Boundary Problem

Australian National University, 20 Jun 2014

Democracy begins with the people; democratic theory simply presupposes them. But democratic theory is silent on who ought be included amongst the people. It can’t, because any democratic process first requires the identification of some determinate group of agents - the demos - in order to act democratically. So how should the demos be defined? It can’t be done democratically because that would require the identification of some prior demos to decide this question, and an infinite regress of who should vote on who should vote ensues. The question of who is logically and temporally prior to the question of how and what.

Yet who the people are is also a fundamental driver of what they decide. Drawing borders in one location will lead to different political outcomes had those borders been drawn somewhere else. Denying a voice to outsiders affected by some policy, intentionally or otherwise, violates a key principle of justice. For accounts of democracy that rely on the quality of decisions or outcomes to justify the authority of the state, this presents a major challenge.

This problem has become known as the Boundary Problem of democratic theory. First raised by Robert Dahl in 1970, the Boundary Problem has increasingly been recognised to pose an intractable challenge to justifications of democracy, one that cannot be addressed from within democratic theory itself. Yet despite the growing awareness of the Boundary Problem and it’s implications, literature on the specific conditions under which it arises, or which accounts of democratic legitimacy it challenges the most, is largely non-existent. A key factor contributing to the paucity of research on the problem is its counter-factual nature and associated lack of empiric data from which to make observations.

In this paper, I attempt to overcome these methodological obstacles by taking a generative approach to political philosophy. Using mathematical modelling and computer simulation, I demonstrate that the Boundary Problem primarily affects certain types of democratic accounts that rely on difference making claims, and show how the clustering of agents and beliefs across and within polities plays a critical role in its manifestation.