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My New Book "Free to Move"—And Why I Wrote it

The first in a series of posts based on my book "Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom"


After a delay caused by the coronavirus crisis, my new book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom is now in print. An audio version is available for preorder and will be released on June 23. This is the first of a series of posts based on the book. It includes a brief summary of what it is about, and explains why I wrote it.

Here is the summary of the book prepared by the publisher, Oxford University Press:

Ballot box voting is often considered the essence of political freedom. But it has two major shortcomings: individual voters have little chance of making a difference, and they also face strong incentives to remain ignorant about the issues at stake. "Voting with your feet," however, avoids both of these pitfalls and offers a wider range of choices. In Free to Move, Ilya Somin explains how broadening opportunities for foot voting can greatly enhance political liberty for millions of people around the world.

People can vote with their feet through international migration, by choosing where to live within a federal system, and by making decisions in the private sector. These three types of foot voting are rarely considered together, but Somin explains how they have important common virtues and can be mutually reinforcing. He contends that all forms of foot voting should be expanded and shows how both domestic constitutions and international law can be structured to increase opportunities for foot voting while mitigating possible downsides.

Somin addresses a variety of common objections to expanded migration rights, including claims that the "self-determination" of natives requires giving them the power to exclude migrants, and arguments that migration is likely to have harmful side effects, such as undermining political institutions, overburdening the welfare state, increasing crime and terrorism, and spreading undesirable cultural values. While these objections are usually directed at international migration, Somin shows how a consistent commitment to such theories would also justify severe restrictions on domestic freedom of movement. That implication is an additional reason to be skeptical of these rationales for exclusion. By making a systematic case for a more open world, Free to Move challenges conventional wisdom on both the left and the right.

There are three big reasons why I wrote the book, and hoped that it might make a contribution to ongoing debates over migration and democratic theory.

First, while there are extensive previous literatures on each of the three types of foot voting covered in the book, no work that I know brought all three together into a unified framework. Doing so makes clear how the three have numerous similarities, how they can be mutually reinforcing, and how most standard objections made against one (usually international migration), actually apply to the others, as well. Previous scholars—most notably Joseph Carens in his great work, The Ethics of Immigration, and elsewhere—had noted various analogies between internal and international freedom of movement and used them to argue for reducing barriers to the latter. But they did not bring these two types of foot voting together systematically as an alternative mechanism of political choice. Nor did they do much to consider various ways in which they are mutually reinforcing.

The second reason why I wrote the book is that expanding foot voting opportunities is one of the great issues of our time, possibly even the single greatest. The lives, freedom, and happiness of many millions of people are at stake.

Economists estimate that free migration throughout the world would roughly double world GDP, with massive increases in wealth for both migrants and natives, who benefit from the increased production and innovation. Smaller, but still very large economic gains can be achieved through expanding opportunities for internal foot voting. For example, cutting back exclusionary zoning in the United States would enable millions of people to move to jurisdictions where they would be more productive, thereby boosting the income of the poor and greatly increasing our overall economic productivity.

These "economic" gains are in addition to massive gains in human liberty and quality of life that cannot easily be quantified. Think of people escaping oppressive governments such as those of Cuba, Venezuela, China, or Saudi Arabia and moving to a freer society in the US or Western Europe. Or consider racial, ethnic, or religious minorities fleeing persecution, or women escaping patriarchal societies. For such people, foot voting is a life-transforming event, often also a life-saving one.

From the standpoint of enhancing political freedom, expanding migration rights is also an enormous gain. Most notably, foot voting through international migration is the only realistically feasible mechanism of political choice for the roughly one-third of the world's population who live under authoritarian regimes.

Domestic foot voting has also often led to vast expansions in freedom and opportunity. In Chapter 2 of the book, I discuss how internal foot voting was historically an enormous boon to women, oppressed minorities, and poor people seeking opportunity, both in the United States and around the world. The story of J.D. Vance, author of the famous book Hillbilly Elegy, is the story of a man whose life was enormously changed for the better because he was able to move to areas that offered greater opportunity than the dysfunctional community where he grew up, and enabled him to expand his horizons.

Both domestic and international foot voting also offer a valuable alternative to conventional ballot box voting. As discussed more fully in the book, they empower individual voters to make more effective and better-informed decisions in ways that mitigate some of the biggest shortcomings of the modern democratic state.

Finally, I thought I was in a good position to write this book because it builds on my previous work on federalism, political knowledge and ignorance, and "voting with your feet." Although I am an immigrant myself, I started my academic career focusing on domestic foot voting within federal systems. I also wrote extensively about the problem of political ignorance, and how expanding foot voting could help mitigate it, culminating in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance.

Only gradually did I come to realize that international migration is an important mechanism of foot voting that has many of the same advantages as the domestic variant (except on a larger scale), and that it can be usefully analyzed in many of the same ways. I published a rudimentary article on this subject in 2008, and a more wide-ranging and sophisticated one in 2014, in a Nomos volume edited by James Fleming and Jacob Levy.

In retrospect, the connections between domestic and international foot voting may seem obvious. I should have seen them earlier. But my vision was for a long time obscured by disciplinary boundaries under which scholars who study federalism and domestic constitutional systems form a different and largely separate intellectual community from those who focus on international migration.

Another reason why the two types of foot voting are rarely considered together is the ideological divide under which conservatives often praise domestic foot voting, while viewing the international kind with suspicion, while left-liberals tend to have the opposite set of predispositions. That left-right division tends to obscure crucial ways in which domestic and international foot voting are far more alike than different.

On the plus side, my background as a specialist on federalism, democratic theory, and constitutional law enabled me to bring a different perspective to issues of international migration than that of most of those whose primary focus was always on the latter. When I finally did see the light, I also saw an opportunity to use my unusual experience to help bring these two fields together.

During the years in which I gradually expanded my academic horizons, the rise of anti-immigrant nationalist movements in both the US and Europe made immigration a major issue on the political agenda. Internal freedom of movement has also become a bigger political issue, as witness the rise of efforts to break down exclusionary zoning.  Most recently, both internal and international freedom of movement have been severely curtailed by restrictionist policies enacted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to recent political developments, we might even say that the issue of migration has been made great again—though not always in a good way.

Chapters 5 and 6 of the book bear on these debates, particularly by offering critiques of a variety of standard justifications for restricting migration, including those often advanced by nationalists. But Free to Move is not primarily intended as a commentary on the political conflicts of the moment. The truth I hope to demonstrate is that foot voting has always been great, and it will remain so long after political attention shifts to other issues.