Borders Matter (Part 2)

by Arjo Klamer

Economic theory and borders

Interestingly, the theorizing of economics still presumes the existence of borders. It lends reason to distinguish open and closed economies, and to treat international economics as a separate field of study. Theoretically, however, one would expect that economic forces are geared to weaken borders and ultimately make them untenable. The argument is that ultimately the quest for profit will take over. Economic agents will seek out transactions that will generate the maximum profit for them. They will not respect borders and will trade with any party that gives them maximum profit. When some agents stop at the borders because they prefer to trade with their compatriots, other agents will exploit the profit opportunities that so arise by trading across the border.


A similar economic argument predicts the disappearance of dialects. When the trading occurs in a particular language, agents have an incentive to speak that language rather than their own dialect. Slowly but surely, the dialect will succumb to the language of the economy, as has happened with dialects in the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. The question now is whether Dutch, Italian and German will give way to the language of the international economy, English. This is already the case in the context of the European Union, where French is ceding the role of the leading language to English.

The challenge to economic theory, therefore, is to account for the persistence of local languages (like Frisian in the North of the Netherlands), and the revival of local dialects (like Celtic), and the endurance of borders of all kinds. Although there are economic theories to explain the disappearance of borders and the diminishing powers of national states, I do not know of any economic theory that explains why borders are maintained and why they are where they are. Might there be economic reasons why the Netherlands maintains borders with Belgium and Canadians insist on the maintenance of borders with the US, the dependence from the American economy notwithstanding?

"Now comes my intervention. I suggest labeling the economy as a specific sphere. It is the sphere in which we generate economic values, like income, a roof over our heads and food to sustain ourselves. Think of the Maslow hierarchy. Think of economic orders of magnitude such as economic growth, productivity, employment.

"Presently, this sphere dominates our society in various ways. Think of the commercialisation of public broadcasting and the universities, the privatisation of public transport and utilities, the emphasis on the economic significance of the arts as in generating employment and tourist revenues. I am stressing now the fundamental borderlessness of the economy as conceived in economics. The captains of industry will claim that borders are only barriers standing in the way of their transnational businesses. Surely, the captains, neo-liberals, and human rights activists will acknowledge those borders in practice. However, I am concerned momentarily with the principle, the ideology, I am inclined to say, of the borderless world.

"The principle of borderlessness also rules in another dimension of lives. The world of high culture — the sacred, the transcendental, the spiritual — is borderless, too, at least in the ideal sense. Think of values like goodness, truth and beauty. For them we preserve specific spheres like the sciences for the truth, the arts for the beautiful, and religions — humanism is better in this context — for the good.(I should add, however, that each of these values operates in each of these spheres). The sciences are without borders because the truth does not stop for borders. From that point of view it would be strange to speak of 'Dutch economics' since why would Dutch economists hold a truth that is different from, say, the Americans? The same can be said for the arts and music. Mondriaan had as a purpose to make art that would be universally acceptable, that is, art that would not be bound to a specific time period and cultural space. Whether he has succeeded is another matter. Music tends to have the same pretense. The Japanese can play the music of the Austrian Mozart just as well as Austrians. Nationality does not matter to the sciences and the arts, at least it should not.

"Justice, dignity and autonomy are other values that do not stop at borders. At least they are not intended to do so. The idea of God, or whatever transcendental idea, is borderless just as well in the sense that a God is not bound to any humanly constructed border whatsoever.

"Borders do matter, however, in the social sphere. There they are actually indispensable. Borders are all over the social sphere, crossing it left and right, up and down, and diagonally. You and I draw borders around our private sphere. It is common to refer for this point to the work of Irving Goffman that shows us how we do so and what we do when someone crosses that border. We draw borders around our families, quite literally with walls, doors that can be locked, hedges and fences, but also metaphorically when we distinguish the in-laws - 'the cold side' - as they are called in Dutch. Rituals like marriage confirm those borders. We draw borders to cordon off organisations, to indicate who we are and who you are not. And, of course, we also draw borders around nations.

"From the perspective of the economic sphere, that is, the sphere of the markets, borders are problematic and have a negative connotation. Borders are similarly viewed in light of the spheres in which we generate cultural values, likes those of the arts, religion and the sciences. I now understand why Tinbergen, my erstwhile hero, saw in scientists the pioneers of world citizenship. Scientists, after all, do not want to respect borders that keep people apart anymore than the truth respects borders.

"Social borders, however, are necessary. Without them people would be communally lost; they would be without the attention that they can not live without. Without borders they would be left without a political community in which they can take part; there would be no democracy either. Without borders there would be no romantic love. I'd venture that we need those borders for the generation and realisation of crucial social values like commitment, responsibility and care. In the bordered community the members find out what commitment, responsibility, thoughtfulness, and a caring attitude mean."

Groups and community

I find ample support in the theories and reflections upon the functioning of groups and the formation of the nation state. People form groups to cope with the uncertainty that they face. At least, this is a point that Siegwart Lundenberg makes in his survey of theories of the group (Lundenberg, 1997). The group forms a common frame of reference and a collective consciousness and functions by virtue of various interdependencies. Families hold together because of a sense of mutual responsibility, a common history, shared tasks (like care for the children). Groups hold together as long as they produce shared goods, such as a sense of membership, and values such as a sense of responsibility, care, and mutual affection or, in some cases, hatred.

The family debate

My wife and I, like most other couples, care so much for each other and our relationship that we exclude others from it. In other words, we discriminate against other potential lovers to safeguard what we have. It makes us, more or less, possessive. Likewise, we have a very clear sense as to who are our children and who are not. The distinction makes a world of difference. We spoil, privilege, love and care for our children while we pay scant attention to others. Whether it be discrimination or family-centric behaviour, we apparently need to draw such borders for the sake of romantic love, the care of our children, a sense of belonging, and so on.

I am engaged in discussions on this matter. My critics point at the contingent character of the borders that we draw around our families. In other societies, at other times, these borders are more elastic. Relationships are more open and children are cared for by the community at large (in Indonesian villages, for example). They suggest that these family borders can have a suffocating effect and other options should be open, like child care in centres and boarding schools. The argument has convinced me that borders shift all the time; they are human constructs and, as such, are subject to change. There is nothing like a typical family. My own family is a case in point; it is a composed family with children of a previous marriage, a child from the current marriage, another child away, and a child that is a half-sister to two of the children. If you are confused, I made my point. Families are complex beasts. They come in all kinds of forms and compositions. And they are dynamic, shifting constantly with some leaving and dying, and others being born and entering. There is little that is static about a family. Every family is doomed to fall apart. Every family has to interact with the outside world, seek partners in other families in order to sustain itself and to procreate. Families join by means of marriage and thus form new families. Each new family has to deal with the backgrounds, or cultures, of the original family and is therefore an instance of a multicultural experiment.

Because most of the above-mentioned critics do not have children themselves, I realize that this argument is somewhat unfair but I can't help but pose it. (And as the critics are friends, they would not mind.) The experience seems to matter.

"Even the seafarer, the world traveller, the scientist, the artist and humanist are in need of an 'oikos.' 'Oikos' connotes 'house' in Greek; it is that limited community to which you belong regardless of your economic or cultural contribution and merit. The oikos could be a family, but it could be more than that. Some people find it in the church, a monastery perhaps, and nowadays more and more people are trying to realize their oikos at work. Nobody can do it all alone.

"In this huge world, amidst 6 billion people, an individual is nothing more than that: one of those 6 billion people. You and I, every person needs special attention in the form of recognition, care and, most of all, love. I need attention for my scientific work; Esther and Bart undoubtedly want people to hear what they produce. We all want to be in conversation with people we know or at least recognize, one in which we are heard and can hear. Every conversation entails that some people participate, are in it, and consequently everybody else is out of it. To that end we cluster and form groups, like families and nations. The borderless world is uninhabitable."

Illustration: The imagined European community

" 'Dutchness is terribly over,' says the Dutch person who prefers to see him- or herself as a citizen of the world. That is why the European project is so important to them. Let's get rid of those national borders. We, the Dutch, want to dissolve into a larger entity. After all, international cooperation is good for peace — which could be called a cultural value — and is economically necessary. A little country can accomplish little to nothing in the global economy. The little country's economy does not stop at the borders. But those borders matter.

"The question is, then: where do we draw them and what quality do we award them? How hermetic will they be, and how open?

"To those who seek a borderless world and for that reason support the European project, I would like to point out that the European integration is about borders. The issue of enlargement is all about where the Europeans of the EU want to draw the border, whom to include and thus whom to exclude. It reminds me of the chant that we sang as boys in the schoolyard: 'Who wants to play along? For boys only!' No, the Bulgarians are not allowed to participate and neither are the Rumanians. The Russians? You must be kidding! European integration is about the staking out of fortress Europe. I am rather an internationalist than a European. That's why I am ill at ease with a European community.

"Europe's national borders mark political space and as such define the political community. Those inhabiting that space have a vote, are subjects of the political system, have to submit to the rulings of that system, and have a right to whatever the system gives in terms of benefits and rights. The borders indicate who pays the taxes, receives the benefits, who can be punished. In short, they rein in who is committed and is a citizen. Borders matter fundamentally in this realm.

"In case we draw these borders too far away, we may watch the unravelling of the Dutch civilization that Dutch citizens have woven throughout the last centuries, including its democratic and social qualities. The European space is probably too large and too intractable, and lacks the soul that is needed to guarantee a vital political community.

"In a global economy where economically speaking borders matter less and less, small political communities appear to do better than large ones, on average. This is what the econometric research of Alessini et al. show. The likely reason is that small communities function better politically, are less prone to sustained corruption and tend to be more egalitarian.

The positive values of nation states and nationalism

Nation states are not of all times. As a matter of fact, national borders came about only during the last few centuries. Their construction has worked better in Europe than it has in the Middle East and Africa. Benedict Anderson (1991, 1983) argues that the rise of the modern state was a response to the decline of religion and the influence of sacred texts and language. Where people of all kinds of tribes and ethnicities share the same religion and the same texts, they are less in need of national borders. In the middle ages people of Western Europe had one God, read one Bible and obeyed one church with the pope as its leader. With the fading of Latin, the rise of science, and the discovery of new territory, the grip of the church loosened and people were in need of other contexts to produce the necessary common goods (see also box on groups above). Monarchies made up for some of this, but they, too, had to cede for the modern national state, based on democratic principles. The important point to be stres sed here is that people are in need to be able to imagine community. In the words of Anderson (1991: 141):

In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism - poetry, prose, fiction, music, plastic art - show this love very clearly in thousand forms and styles.

Anderson refers here to the phenomenon that people are willing to sacrifice their lives for country but would not even think of doing so much when their profession or their firm is being threatened.

Illustration II: Justice versus care

"Justice does not know borders; care does. The values of care and justice have to clash. The family Gumus had to leave the Netherlands because that was just. [Theirs is a famous case that caused a great deal of pain and anguish in the Dutch community. The originally Turkish family Gumus had been in Amsterdam for many years. Mr Gumus had made many Dutch friends as a tailor, the children had integrated well. Then it turned out they were illegally in the Netherlands and were ordered to leave. Their politically influential friends objected vehemently. It became a national case.] According to the responsible Secretary, everyone should be treated equally. This basic principle of justice compelled her to insist on their leaving the country. To those who knew the family this seemed harsh and heartless. They cared for the family and because of that wanted them to stay even if that meant discrimination with respect to families in a similar position but with less influential friends.

"We will never resolve this conflict; yet we cope, for example by the formation of communities that allow and induce us to care and therewith to discriminate without feeling too guilty about that. By the drawing of borders, we make it possible for ourselves and others to belong to a family, a society, a people, a nation. Membership, like a nationality, is a fundamental possession of someone, notes the philosopher Michael Waltzer in the Spheres of Justice.

The importance of border traffic

"Why then, do I seek border areas of the spaces and spheres in which I operate? Why do I try to change conversations, seek the company of scientists all over, and now challenge the borders of what constitutes the realm of economics as a science while I am stressing the importance of the oikos, of the community, the importance of being in the conversation and while I point to the fact that conversations are limited, at least socially? Why do I seek to experiment, to challenge the borders?

"I guess I do so because in the experimenting, in the exploring I experience the borders all too well. Borders need to be challenged. More importantly, border traffic is crucial to keep communities alive. Consider the family. Any family that would keep the outside world out, is suffocating and will perish. A family needs new blood to stay alive. Even so, the family has to shield itself to procure a space in which care, a sense of responsibility and values like that can come about.

"By looking and going beyond our borders, we become conscious of how limited our space, our community, club, society, nation or whatever, is. That should not mean, however, that we give up our borders. Because then we loose one of the most important things we have.

"Likewise, airports can be stimulating because they are the generic places for border traffic but they will cease to be so without a clear sense of home, or oikos. I, for sure, need a sense of home. I cherish the identification with the Dutch community, the Dutch tradition and story not only because that gives me a space in which I can operate politically, but also that gives me a base from which I can operate internationally. The European community is too large, too fragmented, too diverse to count as a relevant base within and from which to operate.

"Borders do not matter when something of subordinate importance is at stake, like the generation of profit, or when something large is concerned, like the truth, the good, and the beautiful."


We then explored how the combination of music and text worked. Esther and Bart asked me to repeat fragments of the text above and added their music to my spoken words. At first I lost a sense of what I was saying. The music proved to be overpowering. Members of the audience reacted furiously. Some of them wanted the music to stop so that they could get a better understanding of the spoken text; others preferred me to stop so that they could appreciate the music better.

We repeated some fragments and I noticed a change. I began to speak louder, with greater emphasis, and felt stronger about what I was saying. The audience seemed to notice the effect as well. When one person asked us what the point of this all was, I more or less repeated what I said at the end, yet with the music in my back, the words got an other dimension. All in all, it made a special experience for me. If anything, it showed me the limits of the spoken word and the power of music. Listening to one or the other is different. The words pull you into a more or less defined context in which they have to be placed in order to be intelligible. Music asks us to open up and experience a borderless space, that is, a space evokes an expansive experience.

Esther and Bart concluded by performing (improvisations on) work of Bartok.


  1. [back ] My source is the Oxford Dictionary.


  • Alessini, Alberto
  • Spolaore, Enrico (1997), 'On the Number and Size of Nations', Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112 (November), pp. 1027-56.
  • Anderson, Benedict (1991 (1983)), Imagined Communities, Verso, London
  • Collins, Randall (1999), Macrohistory: Essays in Sociology of the Long Run, Stanford University Press.
  • Booth, Wayne (1988), The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Goffman, Erving (1967), Interaction Ritual, New York: Doubleday and Company.
  • Lundenberg, Siegwart (1997), 'Grounding Groups in Theory: Functional, Cognitive, and Structural Interdependencies', Advances in Group Processes, 14, pp. 281-331.
  • Rorty, Richard (1979), Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Staveren, Irene (2000), Caring for Economics: An Aristotelian Perspective, London: Routledge.
  • Waltzer, Michael (1983), Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.