Culture & Society

Voting With Our Feet

In his new book, Free to Move, Ilya Somin makes the case for enhanced human mobility

Photo by bauhaus1000 via Getty


With the coronavirus pandemic shutting borders and the Trump administration tightening the screws on immigration by the week, the new book, Free to Move, by George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin may seem to be poorly timed. But the book’s innovative arguments for federalism, zoning and occupational licensing reform, and openness to immigration are more important and timely than ever.

Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom is not just another book in favor of more open immigration—as welcome as that would be. What distinguishes this book is its comprehensive argument for enhanced human mobility in all its manifestations. Somin’s thesis is that the freedom of humans to move to a new home—between countries, within jurisdictions of a single federal system, or within civil society—is the single most effective way to expand the political freedom of mankind.

All those modes of mobility can be summed up by the phrase “foot voting,” which Somin contrasts favorably with the ballot box. He unequivocally prefers representative democracy over authoritarianism, but he also exposes its limitations, including the infinitesimal chance that a person’s vote will matter, the lack of incentive for voters to be informed, and the disproportionate sway of special interest groups in a zero-sum competition for influence.

By contrast, Somin writes, “Foot voting has two fundamental advantages over its more traditional counterpart: it enables individuals to make choices that have a decisive impact, and it gives them much stronger incentives to make well-informed decisions.”

Within countries, foot voting can allow people to migrate to new locales where they can enjoy more freedom and economic opportunity. In the United States, for instance, Americans have traditionally moved not only to better weather, but, as Somin notes, to areas with greater job opportunities, more affordable housing, and relatively lower taxes. This freedom to internally migrate, in turn, creates incentives for the nation’s 50 states and 89,000 units of local government to pursue better policies to attract and retain taxpaying residents.

Among the greatest hurdles to foot voting within the United States are state and local housing regulations and occupational licensing. Building on the work of the Mercatus Center and others, Somin writes, “Restrictive zoning in major cities such as New York and San Francisco has artificially inflated the cost of housing and locked millions of the poor and disadvantaged out of areas where they could otherwise find valuable job opportunities. State-based occupational licensing has also become a major barrier to movement, cutting off potential movers from important job opportunities.”

A second area where foot voting matters is in the private sector. It’s an underappreciated fact (at least by me, until I read Somin’s book) that 69 million Americans now live in 340,000 planned communities across the nation, a huge increase during the past half century. These privately organized enclaves perform many functions of local government, such as land-use planning, waste removal, security, and management of common spaces and recreational facilities.

Far from being a social problem, these planned communities can provide an escape from poorly performing local governments, thus improving people’s lives immediately while incentivizing local officials to clean up their acts. This foot-voting option could be more widely available to lower-income households, Somin notes, if residents were not saddled with the double taxation of paying for the private amenities as well as duplicative and inferior local government “services” they no longer use.

A third, more familiar but contentious arena for foot voting is international migration. Here Somin offers an empirically rich, sophisticated, and compassionate argument for greater mobility, especially for the poor and oppressed around the world. For natives of the richer, receiving countries, Somin cites the ample literature showing that immigration does not reduce wages or employment opportunities for the large majority of workers—in fact, immigration enhances wages and creates job opportunities for natives. Nor do immigrants impose a net fiscal burden. In fact, immigrants bring all sorts of blessings to their new home countries, including innovation and entrepreneurship.

As for the immigrants themselves, Somin accurately notes that, “For many people around the world, international foot voting can literally make the difference between life and death, prosperity and poverty, or freedom and slavery.” That includes 2.7 billion people living under oppressive regimes classified as “Not Free” by Freedom House and 46 million refugees displaced by violence. By tightly restricting immigration, the United States and other developed nations are depriving millions of people of an opportunity to transform their lives for the better.

Immigration restrictions rebound against natives by curtailing their own rights and freedoms. Along with the economic costs, Somin writes, “migration restrictions also impose unwanted obligations on natives, who are required to cooperate with deportation efforts and often must face the risk of racial and ethnic profiling, civil liberties violations, and even deportation as a result of bureaucratic error in cases where the authorities confuse them with illegal migrants.”

Somin is familiar with the common arguments against immigration. He doesn’t dismiss them, but methodically exposes their weaknesses and offers “keyhole solutions” that can address the concerns raised while still allowing more immigrants to enter. For example, to address the fear that immigrants may change the political culture, he suggests we delay eligibility for citizenship until they meet certain standards of assimilation. To address fears over cost to taxpayers, he suggests delaying eligibility for government income support programs.

To those who would object that curbing access to welfare or the vote would be unjust and discriminatory against immigrants, Somin makes the practical argument that it would still be better than not letting them in at all: “Being a second-class citizen—or noncitizen resident—of a first-class nation is far less unjust than being a ‘normal’ citizen of a brutal dictatorship or a society mired in poverty and corruption.” Judging by their own foot-voting behavior, most immigrants would agree.

While Somin finished his book before any of us had heard the name George Floyd, his argument speaks in a timely way to our burning discussion today on race relations in America. Among its other virtues, foot voting is a civil rights issue.

Because foot voting does impose a cost on the individuals who practice it—the cost of uprooting from one place and traveling to and settling in another—poor people and non-whites can be disproportionately locked out of its benefits. And in fact people of color have been victims of explicit efforts to disenfranchise them from foot voting, from apartheid in South Africa to our own fugitive slave laws and more recently discriminatory housing rules. As part of a broader effort to respond to the current unrest, policymakers in Washington and across the country should come together to reform zoning and licensing laws and all other tools of foot-voter suppression.

Somin reminds us that no less a champion of black rights as Frederick Douglass argued for the freedom to move as a basic human right. For many of the reasons developed in Somin’s book, the runaway slave and 19th century civil rights advocate understood that black Americans could only escape the oppression of the Jim Crow South if and when they secured “the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike.”

Somin concludes his book with a number of policy recommendations to enlarge the franchise of foot voting. Along with housing and occupational deregulation, he urges the devolution of power from the federal to the state level and, quoting legal scholar Heather Gerken, “federalism all the way down” to local units of government. The federal government should reduce state and local grants, which tend to dull incentives for sub-national governments to improve their policies and raise local revenue. States, in turn, should grant more autonomy to cities and counties to enhance “second-order” diversity, which allows more differences between jurisdictions, thus creating more choices for foot voting within the state.

As for international migration, Somin advocates expanding the definition of “refugee” to include more economic victims of bad government policies. The line between political and economic oppression can be blurry, as we see in such badly governed nations as Venezuela. The cost of accepting refugees can be defrayed by involving civil society organizations in sponsoring their resettlement and encouraging refugees to work and provide for themselves as soon as possible. Somin also advocates giving states authority to issue visas for immigrants, as Canada and Australia do for their own provinces and states, and as did the United States until the late 19th century.

Free to Move will not be the last word on our never-ending national discussion on immigration, but Somin’s book does offer a fresh take on the issue as part of the broader human aspiration to better our condition by voting with our feet. The author makes a compelling argument to expand foot voting in all its forms: “There are few, if any, other ways to expand human freedom so greatly. And few, if any, other policy changes can do so much to help the poor and oppressed of the world.”

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