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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.








NEXT: Turning Local Disturbances into Federal Cases

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  1. I think your arguments may be strong but they touch on two topics that are wildly unpopular and distasteful in today's world.

    The founding fathers were also fearful of allowing "the masses" to vote directly. That in part was how we wound up with the electoral college and a republic rather than a democracy. Voting was for the elite, the educated, the property owners.

    Another synonym for foot voting would be segregation.

    1. Self-segregation by ideology has actually created a problem for national voting with our first past the post system. If government were strictly local and not at all bound to a national government, it wouldn't be a problem. But, as it stands, it creates a natural gerrymandering where the House of Representatives doesn't actually represent the national popular vote when certain districts vote 90% one way (wasting 40% of that vote).

      1. Is this self-segregation, (Left-wingers moving to the city, conservatives moving out.) or is it people adopting different political views according to local conditions? I wouldn't count on those people having the same political views if they lived somewhere else.

        I think living at high population densities just makes you more likely to think powerful government makes sense. While living with more space around you makes you want more independence from government.

        And, of course, once Democrats take an area over, they can make life pretty unpleasant for political minorities, which probably has something to do with going from 55% Democratic to 90%.

        1. I would argue it is self-segregation, but the politics are not conscious. Instead, politics are a proxy for broad socio-economic policies that would cause one to prefer one area over another. I'm not going to get sucked into a debate about whether democrats make areas unpleasant for political minorities because I'm sure there are those who believe Republican controlled areas make it difficult for many groups (LGBTQ, women, persons of color, etc.) are I doubt there will be agreement on this subject.

  2. If all these uninformed people would just listen to Somin and stop voting, then Simon's vote would have a greater probability of affecting the outcome of an election, giving him and others who continue to cast ballots more power in determining who gets governs.

    It's genius!

  3. How does it lead to political freedom? Cuba is still a communist country even though plenty of Cubans fled to the US. Central America is still corrupt, even though millions fled to the USA.

    In fact, I will postulate that the facts are exactly the opposite of what Prof Somin claims. After all, if all the good, freedom loving people in a nation leave, then who will affect any positive change back in the home country? Certainly corrupt leaders in Central America love the fact that people are fleeing and can claim asylum elsewhere. It conveniently gets rid of all their political enemies. Ditto for people in Africa and the Middle East fleeing to Europe.

    1. OK, you've just demonstrated that you don't grasp his point at all. How did millions of Cubans (About 1.3 million.) fleeing to the USA lead to political freedom? Millions of Cubans are now enjoying political freedom in the USA!

      Foot voting may not do diddly for the people who stay at home, but it can be quite effective for the people who walk away. And THAT is the point. If you're living in an unfree country, and you want freedom, moving is a much more reliable way of ending up free than staying at home and fighting the tyrant.

      Now, I wish he'd address the implications of foot voting for people already living in the destination state, because it's not necessarily nearly so positive for them.

      1. So you are admitting that allows political freedom for a few, while the majority still suffer? That scenario is unsustainable because the entire world can't move to the US or Europe. The only sustainable solution would be to instead focus on people pushing for change in their own countries.

        1. The majority still suffer, because the majority are still foot voting for the suffering. In theory, they might even not be moving because they LIKE what the people leaving saw as suffering.

  4. Quote: "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."
    Thus the effort for mass mailing of ballots for mail in voting. That way one issue dominates, who promises me the most.

    1. Good point. Just as lawyers do not want jurors who think for themselves, politicians welcome ignorant voters who might vote for his/her side.

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