The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Voting With Your Feet

Foot Voting isn't Just About Pursuing Narrow Economic Self-Interest

My response to a badly inaccurate review of my book that portrays me as claiming otherwise.


In most cases, I don't respond to reviews of my books, unless specifically invited to do so (for example, as part of a symposium). Both the book and the review should stand on their own merits. But I will make a rare exception for this review of my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, by Luma Simms of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, at the Law and Liberty website. The reason for the exception is that the reviewer egregiously distorts what the book actually says.

Simms' main complaint is that I supposedly exalt narrow economic self-interest and selfishness to the exclusion of everything else, that the purpose of the foot voting I advocate is to empower people to seek more wealth, and that I assume people are purely rational and guided by reason alone:

We don't need to go through the arguments [of the book] one by one, because there is only one, or rather there are no arguments, only assertions: Man is a rational being; his actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason; his judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture); if he acts with others it is by his choice alone; he must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest; he has no moral duty to others. As such, man must have the political freedom to follow his self-interest to achieve his happiness…

In Somin's world there is no love of place, no value for a sense of belonging, nothing that says, "these particular people live here, and isn't it wonderful that it is so." It is a world populated by selfish and self-interested automatons seeking to enrich themselves.

Far from focusing on wealth alone, throughout the book I emphasize that foot voting decisions are often the result of efforts to escape brutal repression, that they can expand political choice on a variety of dimensions, and that increasing foot voting opportunities is of special value to the poorest and most oppressed people in the United States and around the world. These aren't just minor points relegated to an obscure passage or a footnote. They are central themes I repeatedly highlight in almost every part of the book, beginning on page 2 of the Introduction.

I also explain in Chapter 1 how foot voting promotes political freedom on several different prominent theories thereof, such as consent theory, nondomination, negative freedom, and positive freedom. None of these are solely (or even primarily) about maximizing people's ability to "enrich themselves."

If I thought that people have "no moral duty to others," I would not have bothered to write the many parts of the book where I argue that it is immoral and unjust for governments to exclude migrants and restrict freedom of movement on the vast scale that most currently do. The points I make against such policies apply regardless of whether they serve the narrow self-interest of those who enact them.

Promoting economic opportunity is an important advantage of expanded foot voting, and I cover that issue at some length in various places in the book. For reasons I go into in detail, it is of special value to the poor and oppressed who are otherwise condemned to lifelong poverty through no fault of their own, due to being trapped under the rule of oppressive or dysfunctional governments. But my defense of the economic value of foot voting does not mean that it is the only value, and it certainly doesn't imply that wealth should be pursued to the exclusion of all other goals.

I also neither claim nor assume that human actions are "guided only by reason." To the contrary, I emphasize—in Chapter 1—that one of the advantages of foot voting over conventional ballot-box voting is that the former creates stronger incentives for people to curb irrational biases to which we are all at least to some degree prone. But I also point out (in the same chapter) that completely rational decision-making is probably unachievable. The advantage of foot voting here is not that it does away with irrational biases in the evaluation of information, but that it reduces their impact.

It is similarly false to claim that I reject all "love of place" or "sense of belonging." To the contrary, I point out (pp. 144-46), in response to a famous critique of foot voting by Albert Hirschman, how empowering people to vote with their feet enables many to find homes that better fit their values and interests. That, in turn, enhances "sense of belonging," and leads to greater investment and participation in community institutions (a point backed by empirical evidence I describe).

I do argue in the book that migrants—both domestic and international—are entitled to a presumptive right to freedom of movement, and that governments cannot justly exclude them, except in a few extreme, unusual circumstances. Much of the book (Chapters 5 and 6) is devoted to criticizing numerous rationales for broader rights to exclude, including several that enjoy widespread support. I also criticize several arguments to the effect that people have a moral duty to remain in their countries (or, in some cases, regions) of origin. This, perhaps, is what has attracted Simms' ire. If so, that's fine.  A book rejecting widely held views is going to attract some pushback.

Had Simms tried to answer the points I actually advanced, she could potentially have made a useful contribution to the debate over these issues. But she instead attacks a caricature of her own making.

The points noted above are far from the only flaws and distortions in Simms' review. But I will stop here, because I think I have said enough to show that her review cannot be trusted as a description of what my book actually says.