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.

NEXT: "NBC Said Google Is Demonetizing The Federalist for Spreading Fake News; Google Says the NBC Report Is Fake News"

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  1. “The first of a series of posts…”

    An actionable true threat.

    1. I prefer Blackman’s shilling or these endless posts exploring a topic that Somin has covered again and again from every angle already except “aliens” (by that I mean the space variety).

  2. Wonder where Somin & Soros will move to if they are successful in undermining the greatest country ever?

    1. You seem to be one of those persons in dire need to read the book. Tell you what, as an internationalist myself, I am probably suspicious but I am quite sure that I won’t agree on everything Ilya has to say. But I like to be challenged intellectually; are you?

      1. Weak sauce insult. If the author Somin himself doesn’t deign to participating in the comments section like Bernstein or Volokh himself do, what does that say about the intellectual of Somin’s positions?

        Moreover, everything Somin says in the book, I bet he has repeated in his myriad posts and podcast interviews on the topic. Buying the actual book would be financially supporting something you don’t agree with when the information is already available for free.

  3. The thing not being considered in voting with your feet is property — real estate can’t be brought with you and to some extent you have to abandon interests you have in property.

    Conversely, the introduction of cheaper immigrant labor serves to devalue the property of the working class in the place where people go to in that they now have to pay a higher percentage of now lower earnings in order to service the property.

    I’m not sure how to address this but I don’t think you should completely ignore it.

    1. Viola’
      You state it correctly, but let’s be direct: no borders, no private property, the state has ownership, ideally world governemnt…in the Hague, I guess. If I want to live where you live, I apply to political court to adjudicate whether I am more entitled than you. Your only defense is political. If I win in court, then you can go live wherever ELSE you wish.

  4. Summoning the golem.

    1. Whew. Good one.

  5. It seems like 95% of your Conspiracy output these days is promoting your book or yourself. Since I like your writing, is there any chance we can get that number down a bit, maybe under 50%?


  6. Congratulations on getting the book out, Ilya.

    1. I’m interested in reading it. Actually, I’m somewhat disappointed nobody feels like discussing it in his posts here.

      I really want to see if he’s addressed what seems to me to be an obvious problem with freedom of entry under foot voting: In order for foot voting to actually work, you need diversity of places. Otherwise it’s like a conventional ballot where you have five choices, and they’re all the same candidate.

      But freedom of entry can erase that diversity, because people can move into a jurisdiction and change it. And gradually it becomes the place they fled, because they brought with them the values that made the place they fled a place to flee.

      Having places worth walking to may require letting the destinations veto entry: You put the world in a blender and hit frappe, and what good is foot voting anymore?

      1. So you’re saying Ilya and Eugene brought with them the values of the Soviet Union, and are changing the US to make it more like the USSR?

        I doubt it.

        1. It doesn’t necessarily happen, and they came to the US while quite young, so to the extent they had values, they weren’t cast in stone.

          But they weren’t foot voting, were they? Their parents were, they were just along for the ride.

          What I’m talking about is a real thing, you can see it in the US where California is losing population to neighboring states, which are becoming more like California politically. Do people move from California to Arizona because they want California’s politics, only without beaches and moderate weather? I doubt it. They left because of the politics, or at least because of things the politics caused. But they recreate what they fled when they get there, because they don’t really understand the reasons for what they were fleeing.

          And so you lose Arizona as a place to flee California’s politics.

          1. So their parents were promoting Soviet approaches to things, but they were young enough not to be corrupted?

            Do people move from California to Arizona because they want California’s politics, only without beaches and moderate weather? I doubt it. They left because of the politics, or at least because of things the politics caused. But they recreate what they fled when they get there, because they don’t really understand the reasons for what they were fleeing.

            So you know why people move from CA to AZ better than they do, or you’re smarter than they are. Is that your claim?

            I think you’re making shit up to reinforce your own opinions of how things should work.

            1. “So their parents were promoting Soviet approaches to things, but they were young enough not to be corrupted?”

              I really don’t know, but the problem I’m talking about isn’t imaginary.

              1. the problem I’m talking about isn’t imaginary.

                I’m not so sure of that. People move for lots of reasons. You can’t simply assume that:

                a. The reasons were based on policies in the state they left.
                b. They will, however, soon vote to establish those same policies in their new home.
                c. Any such effort by the newcomers is foolish, rather than reflecting that they liked some policies where they were, but had other reasons for moving.

                I mean, someone who moves from CA to AZ to escape high CA taxes is not very likely to vote for tax increases in AZ. Someone who moves to take advantage of a job offer might reasonably favor more state spending on some items.

                Oh. And much as you may dislike it, newcomers to AZ from CA have every right to be politically active in AZ, including advocating for policies in place in CA.

                1. That exact situation you described happened in Connecticut. It was a low tax state that NYers moved to to escape NY taxes. And they and their children then…voted for higher taxes.

        2. I would say that the type of immigrant matters too. In one famous example, the Cubans that came over right after Castro took power ended up as entrepreneurs and working business types, because it was what they knew in Cuba, and what Castro expropriated. The Cubans that manage to make it to shore now, after decades of communism, are more likely to be welfare sponges.

          1. The Cubans that manage to make it to shore now, after decades of communism, are more likely to be welfare sponges.


            1. Let me add, I don’t think you know much about Cubans.

              The ones still there are pretty entrepreneurial. You have to hustle a good bit to have any kind of lifestyle.

              And I’ll add that Trump did considerable damage to Cuban entrepreneurs when he imposed strict travel restrictions. Prior to that, with the expectation of lots of American tourists, many Cubans were setting up small restaurants, trying to fix up rooms to rent, etc. This was expensive. Just buying dishes and silverware for a few tables, and some cookware, is a major outlay. But Trump pulled the rug out. Pointless, stupid, cruel, like so much of what he does.

              So don’t talk about how shiftless the Cubans are.

  7. A few points that negate the entire work:

    1. The problem with international is that when using a 1-10 scale for freedom, when people move from a 3, because they personally desire a 5 level of freedom, but they move to a nation that’s a 7, they will drag down the freedom of the natives. This is the case with ALL immigration to the USA, including commie Europeans. People have a right to say “Fuck you” to those people.

    2. People DO have a right to maintain their way of life. I am 110% in favor of secession in all its forms, including within current nation states when the cultures diverge too much to want to stay together. This is the only thing that may save freedom in the USA today, splitting it up! Self determination IS a right across the board, whether people want to accept it or not. This country was founded on it.

    3. Again, the fact is that many of the arguments used for international movement DO actually hold up to logical scrutiny domestically. One COULD improve an area by not letting in welfare cases, leftists, or ethnic groups that are problematic. The thing is the social contract we decided upon in the USA, and in most other nations, allows for it. But that isn’t to say the logic isn’t sound. We just decided to not allow it as a compromise.

    So there ya go. Your whole book is retarded and wrong, and has no understanding of human history, our innate human psychology, or group dynamics. Every multicultural society in history HAD to be held together with violent force. Think all the empires. The moment the force went away they always break up along ethno-religious lines. Because that is the default way people like to live. The way all the POCs are behaving today in this country proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt too. White people practice it in their every day lives without being willing to consciously admit it too, because they’ve been told that wanting to be around people like them is wrong… When it’s not.

    Allowing mass non European migration into the western world was literally the biggest mistake in the entire history of the world. Utopian morons like you have probably set into motion events that may cost 10s of millions of people their lives to set things straight. Thanks dumb ass!

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