The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

How Foot Voting Promotes Political Freedom Better than Ballot Box Voting

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


In my previous post based on my new book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, I briefly explained what the book is about, and why I decided to write it in the first place. In this one, I provide an overview of one of the book's central arguments: why foot voting outperforms ballot box voting as a mechanism of political freedom.

Most people believe ballot box voting is the ultimate expression of political freedom. When Americans vote in this year's presidential election – and other elections -we get to decide what government policies we will live under. But ballot box voting has two serious weaknesses: 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. These problems can be mitigated by empowering more people to "vote with their feet."

People can vote with their feet through international migration, by choosing what jurisdiction to live in within a federal system, and 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 as mechanisms for exercising political choice.

The odds that an individual vote will make a meaningful difference are miniscule: about 1 in 60 million in a presidential election, for example.

Effective freedom requires the ability to make a decisive choice. For example,  a person does not have meaningful religious freedom if she has only a 1 in 60 million chance of being able to determine which religion she wishes to 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 make little or no effort to become informed about political issues. Surveys consistently show that voters are often ignorant even about basic aspects of the political system and government policy. For example, only about a third can even name the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. In Free to Move, 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 too 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% of Americans engaging in it 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 miniscule 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 they do 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 set or smartphone to buy, than to deciding who to vote for in any election. The reason is not that the television set is more important than who governs the country, but that the decision about the TV has real effects.

In Chapter 1 of the book, I explain how these two advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting translate into superiority from the standpoint of several different theories of political freedom, including government by consent, negative freedom, positive freedom, and "nondomination" theory. I also describe how foot voting is superior under the criteria for "fair value" of political participation set forth in John Rawls' great work A Theory of Justice. While I am a libertarian and that background was part of what led me to write Free to Move, the  position I defend in the book does not rely on any distinctively libertarian premises. To the contrary, it can be defended based on a wide range of theories of political freedom  associated with the liberal tradition, including left-wing strands thereof. Nondomination theory and Rawls' position are far from libertarian, yet foot voting turns out to trump ballot box voting even under their criteria.

Chapter 1 also offers responses to a number of objections to the case for foot voting. They include claims that foot voting decisions cannot really be considered "political" because they are driven by "economic" factors, arguments that foot voting is inimical to the interests of families and dependent children, and claims that the problem of political ignorance can be easily overcome through education or information shortcuts.

I do not claim that foot voting can completely displace the ballot box as a mechanism of political choice. In  the book, I describe several constraints on foot voting, and also explain how the two mechanisms can be mutually reinforcing in some ways. But the advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting do justify greatly expanding the role of the former. Chapters 2 through 4 of the book describe how that can be done.

UPDATE: The Introduction to the book, which provides an overview of the rest, is available for free download here.