Can the Rule of Law Apply at the Border?: A Commentary on Paul Gowder’s the Rule of Law in the Real World

Saint Louis University Law Journal, Vol. 62, No. 2 2018, 323-32

10 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2018

Date Written: October 15, 2018


The border is an area where the rule of law has often found difficulty taking root, existing as law-free zones characterized by largely unbounded legal and administrative discretion. In his important new book, The Rule of Law in the Real World, Paul Gowder deftly combines historical examples, formal models, legal analysis, and philosophical theory to provide a novel and compelling account of the rule of law. In this paper I consider whether the account Gowder offers can provide the tools needed to bring the border under the rule of law. I argue that on Gowder’s account, there are two ways in which we might try to extend the rule of law to the border.The first is to look at concrete connections that current citizens or members of the political community have with non-citizens. Just as the interests of current citizens give them strong reasons to coordinate to establish the rule of law in their own community, so may the interests of current members in connections with nonmembers give them reason to work to extend the rule of law to the border. These interests can include family ties, other forms of personal relationships, offers of employment, intellectual connections, and others. Some of these connections already serve to give greater legal protections, including protections from arbitrary decision-making, to some non-citizens, and the general trend, I argue, can and should be further strengthened The second method for extending the rule of law to the border involves appealing to certain universal norms so as to build a sense of community that stretches beyond borders. While these norms are not as robust or well established as domestic law, and therefore are unlikely to extend all of the protections of the rule of law to all people at the border, they can, I argues, be a basis for working against the worst arbitrary actions by border officials. I conclude by considering the vexed dispute about providing “amnesty” for unauthorized immigrants in the United States and other countries. I argues that Gowder’s account of the amnesty provided to supporters of the oligarchic coups in ancient Athens provides a model for thinking about when and how amnesties for unauthorized migrants can be done without offending the rule of law, thereby making them more palatable to current citizens.

Keywords: Rule of Law, Immigration Law, Equality, Equal Protection, Immigration, Border, Amnesty, Administrative Discretion, Legal Discretion

JEL Classification: K42, K37

Suggested Citation

Lister, Matthew J., Can the Rule of Law Apply at the Border?: A Commentary on Paul Gowder’s the Rule of Law in the Real World (October 15, 2018). Saint Louis University Law Journal, Vol. 62, No. 2 2018, 323-32. Available at SSRN:

Matthew J. Lister (Contact Author)

Deakin University School of Law ( email )

221 Burwood Highway
Building BC, 6th Floor
Burwood, Victoria 3125


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