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 book, 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.


NEXT: FBI: Murder Up 21% in First 3/4 of 2020

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  1. This Simms fellow is not very bright. Even random 4th graders construct more compelling strawmen.

    1. You may say that it’s not an accurate representation of Somin central theme, but saying it’s a strawman isn’t quite correct though.

      Whether Simms realizes it or not, he’s accurately citing concepts that go back to the Summa Theologica, and which often come up in the both the leftist critique of capitalism, as well as the traditional religious right’s criticisms of liberalism. Hell (pun intended) that excerpt could well have come from the pope’s latest encyclical.

      1. It doesn’t matter if its an accurate representative of Somin’s central theme. He literally writes this: “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.” Any attempt to ignite this kindling will obviously succeed, because he has assembled a petrol-soaked mound of dryer lint in an 100% oxygen environment.

        Any actual critique of Somin’s work starts with evaluating how much of the migrant’s motives are economic (which is often quite high) and, just as importantly, evaluating to what extent the migrants understand WHY the place they are leaving sucks, and the place they are going to does not. That is the problem with foot voting, that the foot voters are ignorant why the place they left sucks. See, e.g., tax haven Mass now being known as Taxachussetts.

        1. Not really, he’s just questioning the underlying assumptions of Somin’s libertarian fantasy of all individual choice all the time, by using a time tested intellectual structure going back thousands of years. It’s kinda an offshoot of things like Just Wage Theory.

  2. Those who think that uncontrolled borders are a good thing for “Americans” ought to consult a “native American” or perhaps two.

    1. I would like a super pro-immigration person to respond to a counterfactual. Imagine their country, or state, or city, was being filled up by very conservative types. So much so, it went from “blue” to “red” like CA went from “red” to “blue” due to hispanic immigration.

      Let’s say a ton of Russian Orthodox Christians after X event in Russia, or Russia invades Hungary again and a bunch of nationalists from there all settle in a small state, say Connecticut, and make it a GOP stronghold. Would they feel the same way?

    2. Those who think governments are good at anything need only look at actual governments.

    3. The “native Americans” also immigrated across uncontrolled borders to get to what we now call North and South America. Just like everyone. No one is native anywhere in the world; all population groups have inter-mixture with others.

      You can still have a political boundary with rules for citizenship without having criminal penalties for people who cross said boundary, without diminishing what “America” is.

      Read the Constitution. It says nothing about establishing a government for a particular racial or cultural group.

    4. Alternatively, they could ask an Israeli how he or she thinks uncontrolled borders–or even borders controlled so that they only allow displaced Palestinian Arabs a “right of return” to places they or their ancestors lived before 1948–would work.

  3. Good for you!

    One would have to be totally inept, blind and deaf and dumb to history to not see what in the long run has been a tremendous beneficial activity within the United States. There is the westward migration west, a migration that continues to this day. The impact of that is so obvious it need not be repeated.

    But the most important and highest impact of ‘voting with one’s feet’ has been the dual migrations, first, of African Americans from south to north, helping to gain them the freedom and dignity they deserve, and after that, the migration of northerners to the south, which is ridding the south of its blatant racism and making it more progressive (a trend not yet at its finality, unfortunately).

    In fact, it is the lack of movement by disadvantaged peoples that has hindered the economic and cultural growth of the nation. One hopes this book will help reduce barriers to movement and restore vigor to its trend.

    1. If you think that black moving from south to north found dignity, you don’t know much about how deeply imbedded racism was in places like Chicago, where Daley Sr. literally built a highway to cut the black public housing off from the rest of city. It was, at best, a half step up from Jim Crow, and that depends on where they moved from and where they moved too.

      Ultimately, immigration is a double edged sword. Cheap labor is good for capitalists, not so good for laborers already in the system. Like all trade, there are winners and losers. Don’t pretend that trade-offs don’t exist.

      Right now, we need moar taxpayers, ahem, I need plucky non-natives with their spicy foods and entrepreneurial spirit. None of which, of course, will though chain migration, be a net drain on the public coffers.

      1. If you think your insight beats migrant blacks’ insight into their own lives, you a condescending patronizing statist.

        1. Boy, you are as wrong as can be Greek alphabet guy, about my ideology. I am not gonna ask you for your Lottery number guesses.

          Moreover, unless you’re going to give me some written quotes from actual Great Migration folks, you don’t know sh*t about what they were thinking either, now do you.

          1. I would have thought they wrote to friends and family members back home in the South, describing how things were for them. I mean, even Daley couldn’t block all communications.

            And if so, it’s interesting that the recipients kept on going north.

            1. Exactly. They themselves thought they themselves were better off.

          2. You are as wrong about everything else as you are about my handle being the Greek alphabet. Thank you for disproving your own point.

    2. Worked out very well for “City of the Future” Detroit, for example.

  4. The biggest problem with your theory of foot voting, is that it doesn’t, effectively, permit the chess club to exclude people who’d rather play checkers. So in the long run people lose the right to have a chess club if checkers is more popular.

    Robert Nozick discussed this point extensively in Anarchy, State, and Utopia: While freedom of exit is indeed essential to liberty, freedom of entry can destroy liberty, if it’s extended to people who wouldn’t maintain that liberty. In the real world, letting anybody who wants to enter a free society can result in there being no free societies anymore.

    You pay a lot of attention to the liberties we should have, you need to pay more attention to what’s necessary for us to continue to have them. (Or, at this point, maybe regain them.)

    1. It would be nice if Somin would lower himself to respond to the very apropos criticism, such as Brett’s, that is found in the very comments section of his blog posts rather than a (another) post about this topic responding to a distant 3rd party.

      Is it to much to ask for Conspirators to engage every once and awhile. Yes, there are f*ckwads in the comments section, but you don’t have to respond to every comment.

    2. I don’t know about chess, but I do know about bridge.

      Anybody who wants to can join a bridge club. People who don’t want to play bridge hardly ever sign up.

      1. But no doubt, there will be “progressives” who join a bridge club just to point out how evil they are to play with a deck that includes only half red cards instead of just red cards.

    3. Your point has been refuted many many times. The US is not equivalent to a home or a chess club which speaks with one voice about “its” property. If you want to pursue trespassing charges, you need to own the property.

      1. The problem as I see it is when the “club” decides it’s going to “buy back” your personal property that it never owned or preventing you from doing things you previously could do on your own property but the new majority of members has decided that you shouldn’t be allowed to do. Prohibition is one example.

      2. You’re confusing “refuted” and “disputed”. We’re talking ethics here, and since there’s no bridge between “is” and “ought”, there always remains an irreducible component of opinion, not subject to refutation.

        I can’t dispute Ilya’s preference for open borders, it is what it is, and what it is, is pre-rational. It’s a starting point, not a conclusion.

        What I can dispute is his apparent belief that actually implementing his open borders scheme would permit the continued existence of free societies worth immigrating to. Open borders are self-defeating, they erase the very diversity foot voting depends on to be meaningful.

        If freedom had no consequences except people being free, that might not be the case. People would only move to free societies because they wanted a free society.

        But freedom brings prosperity, which attracts people who are more interested in prosperity than freedom, and so will influence society to be less free. That this will make the society less prosperous, too, is just ironic.

        You saw this play out in California over the decades. It was a nice place to live, nice weather, very free, and so became very prosperous. Which attracted people who liked the prosperity and weather, but didn’t care about the freedom.

        And so it has now become perhaps the least free state in the US. People are fleeing it for other states, and bringing their warped values with them, starting the cycle over again.

        Well, states within a federation can’t block free entry, no matter how much it would be in their interest to do so, but the federation itself is another matter, and we do NOT have to welcome in the people who will end our freedom.

        But we did, and it’s probably too late now. Is it too much to ask Ilya to learn the lesson from that, though, rather than just advocating more of the same?

  5. “I do argue in the book that migrants…are entitled to a presumptive right to freedom of movement, and that governments cannot justly exclude them, except in a few extreme, unusual circumstances.”

    Well it does sound like an assertion rather than an argument.

    How does one conclude that he is entitled to enter and set up residence in another country regardless of the wishes of the citizens of that country? If one person is free to do that, why not many people?

    Suppose China decides to send 300 million of their citizens to the USA and have them vote to support a new constitution which embraces communism, are US citizens morally unable to prevent this based on your theory of individual right of movement?

  6. Sorry, Ilya, but to liberals, anything even vaguely libertarian sounds like amoral, dog-eat-dog, anarchy – probably because they have an instinctive fear of anybody running their own lives without government oversight and control. Something bad might happen.

  7. “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. “

    In other words, what’s “yours” is actually “ours” and you have a moral duty to share. This is the typical entitlement mentality that drives too much of the discussion about immigration.

    I am damn sick of the belief that the thief has no duty to others, only that others have duty to him. And yes, I will call immigrants “thieves” because they seek to steal what others have worked — for generations — to have.

    Hey Ilya, I don’t have a nice TV set — you have a duty to let me watch yours. (I wonder how long he’d let me…)

    1. What has an immigrant who moves to the United States and takes advantage of our freedom, institutions, and strong economy to improve their life stolen, exactly?

    2. No 18 year old has worked “for generations” to have anything. Your logic applies equally to anyone who is, let’s say, insufficiently aged.

  8. Ilya wants to import tax sucking parasite, Democrat voters by the busload. He is also suborning a crime, illegal entry into the US. 8 U.S. Code § 1325 – Improper entry by alien.

    Immigration must start with recognition of the Mexican lawyer license in all 50 states. Mexico is more overlawyered than we are. Tens of thousands of Mexican lawyers making $30000 a year would love to come here. They should be hired by law schools to reduce tuition costs.

  9. “In Somin’s world there is no love of place, no value for a sense of belonging,”

    I’m confused. The alleged “Sonim’s world” sounds a heck of a lot like everyone from the Pilgrims to the founding founders and beyond.

    The actual issue is the same now as it was then in that the newcomers don’t generally recognize the rights of the existing inhabitants, genocide is now frowned upon, and most current inhabitants have some form of armed resistance that largely matches that of the newcomers. Did I miss anything?

    1. Argh, replace the comma between inhabitants and genocide with the word “although” and strike the Oxford comma after “frowned upon”. Darned broken edit button.

  10. Of course, none of this matters, because Ilya has posted on a web site that claims to be libertarian, and will therefore lose his job next year.

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