The Volokh Conspiracy

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Voting With Your Feet

Three Types of Foot Voting

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


In my previous two posts based on my new book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, I explained what the book is about and why I wrote it, and described the advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting. This one takes a closer look at the three types of foot voting analyzed in the book: foot voting in federal systems, foot voting in the private sector, and foot voting through international migration. One of the main purposes of the book is to consider all three types in a unified framework.

I. Foot Voting Under Federalism

Foot voting in a federal system is what most people think of when they hear the phrase "voting with your feet." People can choose what state or local government to live under based on government policies such as taxation, education, law enforcement, and economic regulation. In the United States, there are are fifty states to choose from, and many thousands of local governments. This offers the obvious advantage of creating a lot of options for foot voters, without having to move to a different country.

It is often claimed that foot voting only really works for the relatively affluent. But throughout American history, it has actually been a boon to the poor and oppressed. The most famous example is the Great Migration of African-Americans from the segregationist South. But there are many others in both the US and abroad. I discuss a number of examples in Chapter 2 of the book, including gays and lesbians moving to more egalitarian jurisdictions, western states' seeking to attract female settlers by extending them equal rights in the 19th century, the migration of the Mormons to Utah, and how foot voting lifted millions out of poverty in China.

Foot voting under federalism can work even better when state and local governments have incentives to compete for residents by offering lower taxes, cheaper housing, and better public services. In the book, I describe ways to incentivize such competition. But even in its absence, interjurisdictional diversity combined with freedom of movement, can do much to enhance political freedom and increase opportunity.

In Chapter 2, I discuss a variety of standard criticisms of interjurisdictional foot voting, such as claims that it is undermined by high moving costs, the danger of "races to the bottom," and longstanding concerns that it is bad for racial and ethnic minorities. I argue that these arguments are mostly overblown; to the extent they are valid (e.g.—moving costs are a genuine issue), I promise reforms to mitigate their effects. I also consider less conventional critiques, such as arguments that foot voting is undermined by "agglomeration effects."

The book also discusses ways in which interjurisdictional mobility has been reduced in recent decades, particularly for the poor. Among the main culprits are exclusionary zoning and occupational licensing laws. I suggest strategies to break down these and other obstacles to mobility.

II. Foot Voting in the Private Sector

Foot voting in the private sector is a less familiar idea than foot voting in federal systems. Nonetheless, it is an important phenomenon. Private organizations of various types offer a wide variety of services traditionally associated with regional and local governments. The most significant examples are private planned communities, such as condominiums and homeowners associations provide services such as environmental amenities, garbage disposal, education, and security. Some 69 million Americans lived in such private communities, as of 2016. That figure gives the lie to the idea that private communities are just a tool for the very wealthy to wall themselves off from the rest of society.

As a source of foot-voting opportunities, private communities have important advantages over traditional state and local governments. One big one is lower moving costs: a given area can fit many more private communities than political jurisdictions. As a result, it is often possible to move from one to another without giving up jobs, family connections, or other opportunities. Another benefit of private communities is that the services they provide are often better-quality than those offered by the state. I discuss the evidence for this proposition in the book.

While private communities are far from being the exclusive preserve of the wealthy, it is true they are much less available to the poor than to the middle and upper classes. In Chapter 4 of the book, I propose some ways to make this form of social organization available to more people.

That chapter also discusses other private-sector opportunities for foot voting, such as school choice. Private-sector foot voting cannot fully replace government services. But much can still be done to expand its scope.

III. Foot Voting through International Migration

The really big kahuna of foot voting is international migration, covered in Chapter 3 of the book. Here, the potential gains are truly enormous, far surpassing the already large advantages of internal foot voting. The reason is that the differences in quality of government between nations are much larger than those between jurisdictions within any single country. The differences between whatever you think is the best US state and whatever you think is the worst, are small compared to the difference between the US and Cuba,  Western Europe and Syria, or North Korea and South Korea.

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. The reason is that there are so many millions of people trapped in societies where—no matter how talented and hard-working they might be—oppressive and corrupt government policies make it virtually impossible for them to ever escape poverty. Such people become vastly more productive if given the chance to live and work in a freer society with greater opportunities.

In the book, I consider various criticisms of the doubling world GDP estimate, and explain why they are likely wrong. Ironically, critics argue both that the estimate is flawed because too few people would migrate (even if given the chance) and that it is wrong because there would be so many migrants that they would overwhelm destination countries' political and economic institutions. But even if opening the borders would increase the world's wealth by "only" 25% or 50%, it would still be an enormous gain, far beyond anything that could be achieved by virtually any other conceivable policy change.

The potential gains here go far beyond the narrowly "economic." They encompass vast increases in human freedom and well-being of all kinds. Consider such examples as refugees fleeing racial, ethnic and religious oppression, women escaping patriarchal societies, and so on. For millions of people, the opportunity to vote with their feet through international migration is literally a matter of life and death. For many more, it can positively impact nearly everything that makes life worth living.

For the one-third of the world's population (some 2.7 billion people) who live under authoritarian regimes, foot voting through international migration is likely their only hope of exercising any political freedom of any kind. Things are often only modestly better for the 1.8 billion people who live in societies that Freedom House classifies as "partly free," meaning they have very weak democratic institutions. Most of the people in these two categories don't even have the extremely limited version of political freedom offered by ballot-box voting.

Obviously, foot voting through international migration does have its limitations, most notably high moving costs compared to the other two types of foot voting. In Chapter 3, I describe some ways to mitigate those limitations.  But I recognize these drawbacks cannot be eliminated completely.

Chapters 2-4  of Free to Move, the ones summarized in this post, address various arguments that question the effectiveness of the three types of foot voting for potential migrants. I also explain how the three types can be mutually reinforcing, and help offset each others' limitations. In Chapters 5 and 6—summarized in the next post in this series—I take on arguments claiming that foot voting must be restricted in order to protect the rights and interests natives of receiving jurisdictions, and those who remain behind in the migrants' homelands.

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