Immigration

My Very First Article on International Migration as a Tool for "Voting With Your Feet"

My 2008 article on this subject is now available on SSRN.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Back in 2008, I published my very first article on international migration as a mechanism for exercising political freedom by "voting with your feet." It was a short symposium piece, entitled "Tiebout Goes Global: International Migration as a Tool for Voting with Your Feet." I have now (admittedly belatedly) made it  available for free download on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Students of federalism have long recognized that citizens in a federal system can "vote with their feet" by moving from one jurisdiction to another. Those oppressed or harmed by the policies of one regional government can improve their lot by moving to another. Such "exit rights" are an important alternative to traditional "voice"-based political participation through voting. In a classic 1956 article, Charles Tiebout pointed out that foot voting can also help citizens find jurisdictions that more closely approximate their preferred mix of taxes and public services. However, scholars have so far failed to systematically consider the implications of foot voting and the Tiebout model for international migration. Although much research addresses the economic and human rights issues raised by movement across international boundaries, there has been very little discussion of its utility as a form of political participation through exit rights.

In this article, I make a tentative effort to plug this hole in the literature. I suggest that the benefits of international foot voting may well be much larger than those of free movement within national borders. Part II briefly summarizes the theory of foot voting and its potential benefits. In Part III, I show how these benefits are potentially much greater international migration than for domestic migration within advanced democracies.

Part IV considers some possible implications for migration law. Current international law requires nations to allow their citizens free exit, but does not require free entrance except in extremely limited circumstances. Unfortunately, the frequent denial of entry rights greatly undercuts the value of exit rights. To reap the full benefits of international foot voting, barriers to entry should be reduced. The considerations advanced in this paper do not provide a comprehensive theory of international migration rights. A full analysis would require a comprehensive balancing of the benefits of free migration against its costs. The advantages of foot voting do, however, provide an important consideration in favor of opening borders more than might otherwise be desirable.

This article was an early stage of my thinking on the subject. In part for that reason, I did not adequately consider several key nuances of the issue, and deliberately set to one side many types of potential objections to expanded migration rights.  At the time, this foray into analyzing international migration seemed like it would just be a modest one-off addition to my work on foot voting, which otherwise focused almost exclusively on internal freedom of movement. Indeed, I only did the piece at all because I got an invitation to participate in an interesting symposium on the topic. I  did not then fully appreciate the complexity of debates over international migration, or the heated emotions they often generate.

Fortunately, I have dealt with the issues that got short shrift in "Tiebout Goes Global" much more fully in later publications, particularly my forthcoming book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom (Oxford University Press), and my 2014 Nomos article "Foot Voting, Federalism, and Political Freedom," among other works.  Despite its limitations, I hope my early effort might still prove useful to readers.

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  1. I get it, foot voting in a federation or confederation leads to associative sorting. I’m glad that, despite it leading to political polarization, the fruits and nuts can stay or move to CA and if you’re a conservative you move to TX, etc. etc.

    But foot voting doesn’t work on an international level because, unlike a federation of states, you’re never going to get buy-in from a majority of counties. It’s actually anti-libertarian, because for it to work, it requires some sort of supra-national regulator, akin to the EU which was trying to run roughshod over individual member states’ desires to have, or not have, African and Middle Eastern refugees.

    Moreover, every nation has a right, fundamental to it’s existence, to decide who they want to allow into that nation. International migration is anti-libertarian unless it is voluntary on the part of the receiving country because it denies them the right of self-determination if it is forced, and the out migration country has a similar right to prevent people from leaving their territory, akin to a tax or the draft or any other coercive measure.

    1. The problem isn’t the foot voting, its the actual voting that happens afterwards.

    2. Whatever the merits of Prof. Somin’s ideas, your comments about things being “anti-libertarian” are very confused. Libertarians believe in individual, not collective, rights. What you’re calling “anti-libertarian” is actually pro-libertarian, in that it privileges the individual over the imaginary rights of nations.

      1. Not confused at all. I think you’re confused about how rights work in practice, rather than theoretically. Theoretically, they are endowed to individuals by their Creator and are inalienable. In practice, they are decided upon communally. Therefore, a nation-state composed of individuals has the right to decide collectively to exclude/include people, akin to me as an individual deciding that no, I don’t want to go bowling with my coworkers or yes, I will go out with that cute red headed girl when she asks me on a date.

    3. But foot voting doesn’t work on an international level because, unlike a federation of states, you’re never going to get buy-in from a majority of counties.

      I’m confused. Its ok to move to Arizona from California because of associative sorting but its not ok to move from Arizona to Mexico because a majority of counties won’t buy-in?

      What does the buy-in from ‘a majority of counties’ do here?

      Moreover, every nation has a right, fundamental to it’s existence, to decide who they want to allow into that nation.

      Nations have no rights. Governments have duties and people have rights. All rights are individual, not collective. So a collection of people have no more (or fewer) rights than any individual.

      Yes, a group of people have the right to control who joins that group (or even who crosses territory they own), but it isn’t ‘one person says no immigrants so we must close the borders’. Its a democratic decision. You need to convince at least a simple majority that your preferred level of border control should be implemented.

      Saying ‘I don’t want immigrants so immigrants should not be allowed’ is not persuasive. And any argument put forth should include some persuasive justification as to why crossing a national border is harmful but not crossing a state, county, or municipal one is not. *Especially* in a federation of states where the central government is one of very limited powers *unlike* the EU government.

      1. Yea, so even when a writer thinks he is being perfectly clear, someone is going to muck it up.

        AZ and CA are different than Mexico to AZ. AZ to CA is still part of the same federation, and thus have “buy-in” to a system of free movement because they are part of the same country. AZ to Mexico has two or more nations involved, which are not part of the same political union. Both have to reciprocally agree to such free movement…and the U.S. and Mexico have agreed to free movement for trade, but not migration. Make sense?

        If some nation-states agree to free migration, but others don’t, you have a situation where more people will move (naturally) from poor countries to rich ones for opportunity. Not only does it make a tragedy of the commons situation, unless you have free migration amongst all or most nations, the mechanism for correction to failures of a nation that foot voting is supposed to prompt, competition, is broken from the start.

    4. When you say nations, do you mean nation-states? Also if a nation (or nation-state) has a fundamental right to decide who to allow into its borders, isn’t this a right to engage in ethnic cleansing?

      1. Nations/nation-states. Same thing unless we are going to get particular about things like tribal nations within a nation-state.

        When the fundamental natural right of a human being is self defense, I would say no, that a nation’s right to decide who is in it’s borders, than it wouldn’t allow for ethnic cleansing via genocide. Murder is still murder. But if you want to make an argument by extremes point, which is a logical fallacy because I’m only talking about immigration here, I suppose a national right of self determination means that, while wrong in a moral sense, Spain has the right to expel the Jews or India/Pakistan to swap Muslim/Hindu populations after independence.

      2. That does not follow logically, at all! What are you thinking of?

  2. “Moreover, every nation has a right, fundamental to it’s existence, to decide who they want to allow into that nation. ”

    Ilya begs to differ…

  3. Does “voting with your feet” work though? Or does it instead break the system of governance?

    What we see these days is citizens leaving high tax, big government states to low tax, low government states. “Voting with their feet”. But often, when they arrive at the new location, they vote for the same policies, people, and items that led to the high tax, big government state. Which then prompts another rounds of “voting with their feet”

    In essence what may occur is a subset of people vote for current high services, to be paid for with debt and future promises. When the debt and future promises come due, the subset of voters leave, with those left behind holding the proverbial “bag of debt”.

    1. If it breaks the system of government – do you care? Given that you’ve left. You’ve left, presumably, because you already considered the system of government broken beyond your ability to repair.

    2. But often, when they arrive at the new location, they vote for the same policies,

      That’s a different (though related) issue. Its one thing to leave a broken government, its a whole different level of stupid to not know why it broke and start breaking the one in the place you immigrated too.

      All too common though. Its certainly a persuasive argument (to me) as to why we could use immigration controls – including internal borders.

  4. In essence what may occur is a subset of people vote for current high services, to be paid for with debt and future promises. When the debt and future promises come due, the subset of voters leave, with those left behind holding the proverbial “bag of debt”.

    That’s an awfully big subset you’re imagining.

    1. It’s more common than you think, and it’s part of the reason why some of the big old blue states are seeing such high rates of out-migration.

      Illinois and New York, for instance, are seeing high net domestic outmigration rates, of 6.5 and 5.6 people per 1000 residents per year.

      One of the reasons is the extravagent pension promises by these states that are now coming due. Even the pensioners are leaving the state…and taking the current state tax dollars with them. Indeed, some 20% of the pensioners in Illinois have left…taking billions of dollars per year from Illinois with them.

      1. What we see these days is citizens leaving high tax, big government states to low tax, low government states. “Voting with their feet”. But often, when they arrive at the new location, they vote for the same policies, people, and items that led to the high tax, big government state. Which then prompts another rounds of “voting with their feet”

        Your numbers are still hardly big enough for the newcomers to impose their preferred policies on their new states of residence.

        1. “Impose”…perhaps not. Influence? Absolutely.

          Keep in mind, these are numbers per YEAR. Take those over 10 years or 20 years, and you’re talking millions of people.

  5. Nah. I’m told by the very principled libertarians that post at Reason that people should be forced to stay in their own shitholes – or else how will anyone ever make those shitholes better.

    With that in mind, I vote for building a wall around around CA, WA, and OR.

  6. I’ve read a lot of Prof. Somin’s posts on foot voting, and after having done so for several years, and having done some research and reading, and a lot of thinking about this, I have come to a conclusion: the concept of foot voting is flawed. There is no such thing as “foot voting,” it is simply a figure of speech that means “if you don’t like it, leave.”

    Consider this: voting only makes sense if you remain to enjoy the fruits of the ballot box. If you leave, you haven’t voted, and if anyone notices, your departure may be interpreted in any number of ways, not only the way you choose. If you remove yourself from the scope of the vote, you are no longer participating in it – so in “foot voting,” you are not voting.

    What does it mean to vote? Voting is participating in a societal system, indicating one’s choice of leaders, or representatives, or a course of action. If you are no long there after you’ve cast your view, you are not a voter.

    I know Prof. Somin has hitched his career wagon to a few concepts, foot voting being just one. I know he doesn’t ever respond to comments; don’t know if he reads them. But I hope he considers that foot voting makes little sense, conceptually.

    1. You are indeed correct, in that in a democracy voting implies a co-production of the laws that govern the society that you live in. Granted, your own vote doesn’t mean much in the scheme of things, but voting at the ballot box is a symbolic acceptance of the social compact between citizens and government.

      “foot voting” on the other hand is taking your ball and going home, and a rejection of the social compact.

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