Discover more from Discourse
The ability to move freely between communities, states, and countries leads to greater freedom and prosperity
By Ilya Somin
Most people believe ballot-box voting is the ultimate expression of political freedom. When Americans vote in elections such as this year’s upcoming presidential contest they get to decide what government policies they will live under. But ballot-box voting has two serious shortcomings: individual voters have almost no chance of affecting the outcome of an election, and for that very reason they have little incentive to make well-informed decisions.
Instead of constantly urging people to “get out and vote” in elections, we should be encouraging and empowering more people to “vote with their feet.” People can do this through international migration, by choosing to live in a particular jurisdiction within a federal system, and even by making decisions in the private sector, such as living in a private planned community. These three types of foot voting are often considered in isolation from each other. But they have many commonalities, including the fact that they are mechanisms for exercising meaningful political choice.
Ballot-Box Voting Offers Little Real Choice
By contrast, the odds that an individual vote in an election will make a meaningful difference are minuscule: about 1 in 60 million in a presidential election, for example. Effective freedom requires the ability to make a decisive choice. For example, you do not have meaningful religious freedom if you have only a 1-in-60-million chance of being able to determine which religion you can practice. A 1-in-60-million chance of deciding what views you are allowed to express is not meaningful freedom of speech. What is true of freedom of speech and religion also applies to political freedom. A person with only an infinitesimal chance of affecting what kind of government policies he or she is subjected to has little, if any, genuine choice.
The near-powerlessness of individual voters also incentivizes them to make little or no effort to become informed about political issues. Surveys consistently show that voters are often ignorant about even basic aspects of the political system and government policy. For example, only about a third can name the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. In my new book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, and my previous book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, I show how political ignorance is both widespread and extremely difficult to overcome. Perhaps even worse, voters also have incentives to be “rationally irrational”—to do a poor job of evaluating the political information they do have.
Medical ethics requires doctors to get the “informed consent” of patients before treatment. Government policies also carry serious risks. Like medical operations, they are literally matters of life and death. Yet widespread public ignorance ensures that elections rarely secure anything approaching informed consent of the governed. Elected governments are like doctors over whom you have almost no control, mandating treatments you know little about.
Voting is not the only mechanism of traditional political participation. Some can also try to influence government policy by lobbying, campaign contributions, and political activism. But opportunities for such participation beyond voting are highly unequal, with only an estimated 25 percent of Americans engaging in such activities at all. Even if access to such participation could somehow be equalized, we would still be left with the reality that each individual citizen would have only a minuscule chance of influencing policy outcomes. If participation beyond voting were fully equal, each individual participant would have no better odds of changing things by that mechanism than he or she does by voting. In both cases, increasing the influence of some necessarily means diminishing that of others.
Things are very different when people “vote with their feet.” When you decide what jurisdiction to live in, that is a decision you have real control over. That in turn creates strong incentives to seek out relevant information. The same applies to private-sector decisions and choices about international migration. Most people probably devote more time and effort to deciding what television or smartphone to buy than whom to vote for in any election. The reason is not that the TV is more important than who governs the country but that people correctly intuit that the decision about the TV has immediate, observable effects on their lives.
I do not claim foot voting can completely displace the ballot box as a mechanism of political choice. But the advantages of foot voting over ballot-box voting do justify greatly expanding the role of the former. And there is much room to expand all three types of foot-voting opportunities.
Foot Voting under Federalism
Foot voting in a federal system is what most people think of when they hear the phrase “voting with your feet.” People can choose their preferred state or local government on the basis of government policies such as taxation, education, law enforcement, and economic regulation. In the United States, there are 50 states to choose from and many thousands of local governments. This offers the obvious advantage of creating a lot of options for foot voters without them having to move to a different country.
It is often claimed that foot voting only really works for the relatively affluent. But throughout American history, it has actually been a boon to the poor and oppressed. The most famous example is the Great Migration of African Americans from the segregationist South. But there are many others in both the United States and abroad, including gays and lesbians moving to more egalitarian jurisdictions and the migration of Mormons to Utah in search of religious freedom. One of the greatest migrations in recent history has occurred in China, where tens of millions of rural residents have moved to cities in search of work and a better life.
Foot voting under federalism can work even better when state and local governments have incentives to compete for residents by offering lower taxes, cheaper housing, and better public services. In the book, I describe ways to incentivize such competition. But even in its absence, interjurisdictional diversity, combined with freedom of movement, can do much to enhance political freedom and increase opportunity.
There are a variety of standard criticisms of interjurisdictional foot voting, such as claims that it is undermined by high moving costs, the danger of “races to the bottom,” and longstanding concerns that it is bad for racial and ethnic minorities. But these criticisms are considerably overblown, to the extent they are valid. Where they are genuine issues, there are ways to mitigate their effects. Moving costs can be reduced by granting more authority to lower levels of government and to the private sector. It is cheaper and easier to move from one town to another in the same region than to another state. And far from harming minority groups, foot voting has historically been a great benefit to them, offering an escape to more tolerant jurisdictions. I cover these issues in greater detail in Free to Move.
Unfortunately, interjurisdictional mobility has been reduced in recent decades, particularly for the poor. Among the main culprits are exclusionary zoning and occupational licensing laws. But there are ways to break down these and other obstacles to mobility. Over the last few years, a strong reform movement has begun to cut back on exclusionary zoning in a number of states. Hopefully that progress will continue.
Foot Voting in the Private Sector
Foot voting in the private sector is a less familiar idea than its counterpart in federal systems. Nonetheless, it is an important phenomenon. Private organizations offer a wide variety of services traditionally associated with regional and local governments. The most significant examples are private planned communities, such as condominiums and homeowners’ associations, which provide services such as environmental amenities, garbage disposal, education, and security. Some 69 million Americans lived in such private communities as of 2016. That figure gives the lie to the idea that private communities are just a tool for the very wealthy to wall themselves off from the rest of society.
As a source of foot-voting opportunities, private communities have important advantages over traditional state and local governments. One big advantage is lower moving costs: a given area can fit many more private communities than it can fit political jurisdictions. As a result, it is often possible to move from one private community to another without giving up jobs, family connections, or other opportunities. Another benefit of private communities is that the services they provide are often of better quality than those offered by the state.
While private communities are far from being the exclusive preserve of the wealthy, it is true they are much less available to the poor than to the middle and upper classes. There are ways to make this form of social organization available to more people, including by breaking down land-use restrictions that make it hard to form new private communities
Foot Voting through International Migration
The really big kahuna of foot voting is international migration. Here, the potential gains are truly enormous, far surpassing the already large advantages of internal foot voting. Differences in the quality of government between nations are much larger than those between jurisdictions within any single country. The differences between whatever you think is the best US state and whatever you think is the worst are small compared to the differences between the United States and Cuba, Western Europe and, Syria, —or North Korea and South Korea.
Economists estimate that free migration throughout the world would roughly double world GDP, with massive increases in wealth for both migrants and natives, who would benefit from the increased production and innovation. The reason is that there are so many millions of people trapped in societies where—no matter how talented and hardworking these individuals might be—oppressive and corrupt government policies make it virtually impossible for them ever to escape poverty. Such people become vastly more productive if given the chance to live and work in a freer society with greater opportunities.
Ironically, critics argue (incorrectly, in my view) both that the doubling of GDP estimate is flawed because too few people would migrate (even if given the chance) and that it is wrong because there would be so many migrants they would overwhelm destination countries’ political and economic institutions. But even if opening the borders would increase the world’s wealth by “only” 25 percent or 50 percent, that would still be an enormous gain, beyond anything that could be achieved by virtually any other conceivable policy change.
The potential gains here go far beyond the narrowly economic. They encompass vast increases in human freedom and well-being of all kinds. Consider such examples as refugees fleeing racial, ethnic, and religious oppression, or women escaping patriarchal societies. For millions of people, the opportunity to vote with their feet through international migration is literally a matter of life and death. For many more, it can positively affect nearly everything that makes life worth living.
For the one-third of the world’s population (some 2.7 billion people) who live under authoritarian regimes, foot voting through international migration is likely their only hope of exercising political freedom of any kind. Things are often only modestly better for the 1.8 billion people who live in societies that Freedom House classifies as “partly free,” meaning they have very weak democratic institutions. Most of the people in these two categories don’t even have the extremely limited version of political freedom offered by ballot-box voting.
Obviously, foot voting through international migration does have its limitations, most notably high moving costs compared with the other two types of foot voting. In Chapter 3 of my book, I describe some ways to mitigate those limitations. But I recognize these drawbacks cannot be eliminated completely.
There are also a variety of objections to expanding freedom of movement, both domestic and international. Some hold that governments have a general right to exclude migrants, even if they don’t pose any kind of threat. Others claim that exclusion is justified when supposedly necessary to avoid negative side effects of migration, such as overburdening the welfare state, increasing competition for jobs, and—lately—spreading the coronavirus. I have responded to many such objections here, and in much greater detail in Chapters 5 and 6 of Free to Move.
I do not claim that the right to freedom of movement must be completely unconstrained. A sufficiently grave evil that can only be avoided through migration restrictions can be enough to justify them. But given the enormous value of foot voting in enhancing human freedom, the case for such constraints must be subject to a very high burden of proof, similar to that applied to proposed restrictions on other important human rights.