Voting With Your Feet

Help Workers by Breaking Down Barriers to Labor Mobility

Labor Day is a good time to remember that we can make workers vastly better off by empowering more of them to vote with their feet.


Today is Labor Day, and—as usual—there is much discussion of what can be done to help workers. But few focus on the one type of reform that is likely to help more poor and disadvantaged workers than virtually anything else: increasing labor mobility. In the United States and around the world, far too many workers are trapped in places where it is difficult or impossible for them to ever escape poverty. They could better their lot if allowed to "vote with their feet" by moving to locations where there are better job opportunities. That would also be an enormous boon to the rest of society.

Internationally, the biggest barriers condemning millions to lives of poverty and oppression are immigration restrictions. Economists estimate that eliminating legal barriers to migration throughout the world would roughly double world GDP—in other words, making the world twice as productive as it is now. A person who has the misfortune of being born in Cuba or Venezuela, Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, is likely condemned to lifelong poverty, no matter how talented or hardworking he or she may be. If he is allowed to move to a freer society with better economic institutions, he can almost immediately double or triple his income and productivity. And that doesn't consider the possibility of improving his job skills, which is also likely to be more feasible in his new home than in his country of origin.

The vast new wealth created by breaking down migration barriers would obviously benefit migrants themselves. But it also creates enormous advantages for natives, as well. They consume the new wealth in the form of cheaper and better products, increased innovation, and the establishment of new businesses (which immigrants create at higher rates than natives). Immigrants also contribute disproportionately to scientific and medical innovation, such as the recently developed Covid-19 vaccines, that have already saved many thousands of lives around the world.

Similar, though admittedly less extreme, barriers to labor mobility also harm workers within the United States. Exclusionary zoning prevents many millions of Americans—particularly the poor and working class—from moving to areas where they could find better job opportunities and thereby increase their wages and standard of living. Recent evidence suggests that the problem is even worse than scholars previously thought. Occupational licensing further exacerbates the problem, by making it difficult for workers in many industries to move from one state to another.

Breaking down barriers to labor mobility is an oft-ignored common interest of poor minorities (most of whom are Democrats), and the increasingly Republican white working class. Both groups could benefit from increased opportunity to move to places where there are more and better jobs available.

As with lowering immigration restrictions, breaking down domestic barriers to labor mobility would create enormous benefits for society as a whole, as well as the migrants themselves. Economists estimate that cutting back on exclusionary zoning would greatly increase economic growth. Like international migrants, domestic ones can be more productive and innovative if given the opportunity to move to places where they can make better use of their talents.

Many proposals to help workers have a zero-sum quality, as they involve attempts to forcibly redistribute wealth from employers, investors, consumers, or some combination of all three. Breaking down barriers to labor mobility, by contrast, creates massive benefits for both workers and society as a whole.

Some on the left point out that, if investors are allowed to move capital freely, workers should be equally free to move, as well. It is indeed true that, thanks to government policies restricting labor mobility,  investment capital is generally more mobile than labor. It is also true that the restrictions on labor mobility are deeply unjust. In many cases, they trap people in poverty simply because of arbitrary circumstances of birth, much as racial segregation and feudalism once did. The inequality between labor and capital, and the parallels with segregation and feudalism should lead progressives to put a higher priority on increasing labor mobility.

At the same time, it is worth recognizing, that investors and employers, as a class, are likely to benefit from increased labor mobility, too. Increased productivity and innovation create new investment opportunities. The biggest enemies of both workers and capitalists are not each other, but the combination of nationalists and NIMBYs who erect barriers to freedom of movement, thereby needlessly impoverishing labor and capital alike.

On the right, conservatives who value meritocracy and reject racial and ethnic preferences, would do well to recognize that few policies are so anti-meritocratic as barriers to mobility. The case for ending them also has much in common with the case for color-blind government policies, more generally.

Obviously, there are those who argue against increasing labor mobility, either on the grounds that existing communities have an inherent right to exclude newcomers, or because allowing them in would have various negative side-effects. I address these types of arguments here, and in much greater detail in Chapters 5 and 6 of my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. As I explain in those earlier publications, nearly all such objections are wrong, overblown, or can be ameliorated by "keyhole solutions" that are less draconian than exclusion. In addition, the vast new wealth created by breaking down barriers to mobility can itself be used to help address any potential negative effects. In the book, I also push back against claims that mobility should be restricted for the benefit of those "left behind" in migrants' communities of origin.

Workers of the world, unite to demand more freedom of movement!



NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: September 6, 1983

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  1. It’s worth pointing out not just how remarkably similar this is to arguments that we could greatly help babies by banning abortion. Not hust the argument, but also the counterargument.

    How in the work would it benefit us to have unwanted babies thrust among us? And would it really help them to be thrust into a world where they clearly aren’t wanted and hence will be visibly suffering. After all, if their attempt to enter is safely, effectively, and legally terminated, their existence and hence their suffering will remain completely invisible to us, and hence can be safely assumed not to exist, or at least not to matter.

    It seems to me the questions here are pretty much identical.

    1. Ilya is very intelligent. After 1L he became a total dumbass. His gping to an Ivy schoold made him the worst dumbass.

      Would it not be easier and more efficient to kill the oligarchs keeping Zimbabwe such a horrible place? Kill their entire families, down to the last kitten.

      Instead the total retard wants to move millions of people thousands of miles, to spent years learning basic language and culture, to destroy the destinations.

      I can’t take this mental cripple anymore. A kid in Life Skills would understand what this vile Ivy indoctrinated denier will never do.

  2. A great Labor Day post.

    1. Sure. if your goal is for American “labor” to be poor, mostly unemployed, and dependent upon the government for their lives

      1. Finkel wants a permanent Democrat one perty state, like in Red China. Those diverses vote 90% Democrat.

  3. Oof.
    “Immigrants also contribute disproportionately to scientific and medical innovation, such as the recently developed Covid-19 vaccines, that have already saved many thousands of lives around the world”
    There’s a reason immigrants to the US tend to contribute highly to scientific advances (not to mention that they make more money): we have high barriers to entry. Juan isn’t curing cancer by picking strawberries 12 hours a day.

    From your “I address [sovereignty] arguments here” post:
    “Arguments for restrictions on migration based on group membership founder on the flaws inherent in claims that there is a right to live in a polity that privileges a particular culture or ethnic group. Such a right would imply the power to coerce even currently existing residents to keep them from changing their cultural practices.”

    Families don’t wake up one day and decide change cultures. Cultural change from the inside is slow and takes generations. Mass migration changes it instantly, which is why it often leads to conflict between groups.

    1. Since when did a group of people with the power to act together to enact something for their common benefit need to satisfy some academic’s idea of whether they have the “right” to do it?

      They can decide to do it because they can decide to do it. Or not to because they decided not to. And they can decide what they think is “right” for themselves without listening to academics who are happy to hand-wave their concerns away.

      1. Hey, if you’ve got enough power you can keep slaves, and then brag about it and about how you don’t care what other people think.

        1. David, that’s idiotic. But, then you passed 1L. It made you a retard no matter your lofty native IQ.

        2. Or free them. Or do whatever. What do you think your point is?

          My point is that people can decide what’s “right” for themselves and academics can pound sand if they don’t agree. A “right” is determined by popular consensus, not academic consensus.

          1. No, rights are not determined by popular consensus.

            1. Effectively, yes they are.

              You and Ilya can claim 100 bizarre things are your “right”. So what? Everyone else can and should blithely reject your warped, self-important worldview and invite you to go away and stop burdening us all with your BS.

              1. Like I said, you’re not just defending slavery; you’re actually patting yourself on the back as having the moral high ground because some people have the effrontery to tell you that slavery is wrong.

  4. Ah, an issue that puts two Republican values in conflict, how to help business with less regulation, and their hatred for immigrants.

    I am also going to preempt the response “Wr like LEGAL immigration” with the reminder that this proposal aims to increase legal immigration, and you will still be against it.

    1. Similarly, if you repealed all laws against bank robbery, people could just walk into the bank and take whatever money they wanted, and it wouldn’t technically be robbery anymore. So, why would depositors at the bank object to legal transactions?

      All views look like parodies to the parodist.

    2. It helps your straw man argument if you don’t post your comment immediately following, but 45 minutes after, someone making the non-straw-man version of what you want to “preempt”.

    3. Congratulation on so clearly displaying your ignorance for the world to see.

      The Democrat-Republican Uniparty loves cheap workers for the businesses that pay them off.

      Actual Republicans (as opposed to the grifters who target the Republican Party) value the lives of America workers, and so want to protect them from cheap foreign competition.

      Which is why President Trump was so proud of producing the lowest Black and Histpanic unemployment rates measured in America, and why both those trends have reversed under the Biden* Admin.

      “Decreasing regulation” (getting the bureaucracies boot off the throat of American business) helps all Americans who aren’t part of teh bureaucracy.

      Nuking immigration law help America’s rich, and the world’s poor, at the cost of harming America’s poor.

      Which is why the corrupt favor it so: it helps people who can pay them off, and hurts people who can’t

    4. I support the legal immigration of Zimbabwe law profs. They would be ecstatic to earn $25000 to do Ilya’s job. They would be ecstatic to even be paid at all.

      1. This would be the strongest argument against Trump’s immigration policy. If you limit legal immigration to the highly educated, white collar workers who will take the upper-middle-class jobs for a fraction of the cost of an American (but still more that the heart of the middle class), you end up with the upwardly mobile portion of the middle class composed of immigrants with different cultural values than Americans (assuming you accept and fear immigrants will change American culture).

        You know what will have a larger impact on prevailing culture than thousands of guest workers who work long hours, send money back to the home country (limiting their upward mobility), with no disposable income? Highly educated, highly paid immigrants with disposable income, and the political clout of the upper-middle-class who hold onto their culture while living throughout the suburbs of America.

        Just sayin’.

  5. They could better their lot if allowed to “vote with their feet” by moving to locations where there are better job opportunities. That would also be an enormous boon to the rest of society.

    Internationally, the biggest barriers condemning millions to lives of poverty and oppression are immigration restrictions.

    Lie, fraud.

    The biggest source of poverty and misery for low skilled Americans is lack of immigration restrictions. It drives their wages down, and dries up the job market.

    Because many employers would rather hire people with no hope, who will do whatever the boss wants, than people how know their rights, and expect to be treated decently.

    As an American, I know I owe a moral duty to my fellow Americans that is greater than any moral duty I owe to non-Americans.

    If you are a US citizen, but don’t acknowledge that moral duty, then you are a garbage “American”, and a garbage human being who takes from others, but refuses to give in return

    1. The biggest source of poverty and misery for low skilled Americans is lack of immigration restrictions. It drives their wages down, and dries up the job market.

      Tell me you don’t understand economics without saying that you don’t understand economics.

      1. I’m afraid it’s you who doesn’t understand economics:

        Restrict the supply of unskilled labor and the price goes up.

        It’s a pretty clear effect from what we’ve seen from pandemic unemployment benefits, where we are artificially restricting the labor supply through enhance unemployment benefits, and companies are having to pay bonuses and enhanced salaries to attract labor.

        1. Restrict the supply of unskilled labor and the price goes up.

          Ceteris paribus, sure. If we hold demand constant then reducing supply increases prices. But that’s a false premise.

          And of course raising prices hurts people who need to buy the things whose price just went up.

          1. Well, yes, but let’s assume you’re one of those low skilled workers. Now you have a better paying job, and 100% of the cost of the stuff you buy is NOT low skilled labor, so the cost doesn’t go up nearly as much as your income did.

            Really, it’s a sort of income redistribution effect.

          2. “raising prices hurts people who need to buy the things”

            Yes, but it’s better for all involved than the welfare state and everything that goes with that.

            Is there any historical precedent for a powerful polity dissolving its own borders, doubling the population with newcomers, ceding political decisionmaking, and bankrupting the treasury with government benefits, imperialism and corruption?

      2. All loser Democrat constituents busted records of properity under Trump. Their wages shot up more than other groups. Wages were going to explode.
        That is why the oligarchs got rid of Trump by hyping the virus and shutting down the economy.

        Try visiting the Labor Department website for a few facts.

  6. “Arguments for restrictions on migration based on group membership founder on the flaws inherent in claims that there is a right to live in a polity that privileges a particular culture or ethnic group.”

    Wow. So I don’t have a right to decide who I want to associate with? You have a right to demand to associate with me that is greater than my right not to want to associate with you?

    You are a sick, twisted, evil monster. You do not own me

    1. You do have a right to decide who you want to associate with. You don’t have a right to decide who other people should associate with. If I want to do business with someone from, say, Mexico — whether it be buying something from him, employing him, or renting to him — you do not have a right to tell me not to. Ilya is certainly not telling you that you have to do those things. You are free not to associate with this person.

      1. Maybe I don’t have that right, but congress does, both in the commerce clause and the naturalization clause.

        I would think it would be a microscopic subset that would think Wickard was correctly decided, but think congress doesn’t have the right to restrict immigration.

        1. Congress has the power, not the right.

          If we’re talking about power, Congress has the power to force Greg to associate with people with whom he clearly doesn’t want to, like when they passed the Civil Rights Act to force him to associate with blacks.

  7. The largest hurdle to open immigration is that almost all states in the world are collectively owned. Some are managed more autocratically than others, but even democracies are forms of collective ownership. Thus, it is not possible to assure the consent of 100% of the shareholders in regards to admitting more people, as such action dilutes the property interests of all shareholders and subjects them to a multitude of externalities for which the state is loathe to compensate.

    However, you CAN effectively eliminate the externalities imposed by economic migrants upon shareholders by de-collectivizing the state entirely. Convert everything to private ownership; as such, every form of labor mobility is subject to the direct consent of the proprietor. Naturally, as a property-owner, I would benefit greatly from allowing contractors on to my property to perform work I can’t do, or to allow tenants who would provide a net economic benefit to me directly. At the same time, I would have no natural incentive or compulsion to invite criminals, indigents, or people who resent me for owning property and openly advocate for me to be dispossessed of my property or killed.

    Unless proposals for open immigration are contingent upon first privatizing the state itself, such ideas are inherently expropriative in nature.

    1. Back when I joined the LP, in the 70’s, that was the general understanding of open borders in libertarian circles: It was something you’d want to do as the very last thing, after reducing our government to a night watchman state, and abolishing all income transfers. Because, obviously, if you did it before that, you’d attract people who wanted to live in a welfare state, and that’s what they’d vote for, rendering shrinking government politically impossible.

      Ilya has a cartoon understanding of libertarianism and its policy implications, at best. Well, it’s not a rare deficit these days.

      1. ” Ilya has a cartoon understanding of libertarianism and its policy implications, at best. ”

        If there is anything the disaffected, roundly bigoted, anti-social, on-the-spectrum, right-wing culture war casualties at the Volokh Conspiracy can’t stand, it is some genuinely libertarian content.

        1. Go away, Art. Almost no one can read your comments anymore anyway.

        2. Zimbabwe is probably a common law country. Recognize their lawyer license. Start the mass migration of their law profs. Then Ilya gets a little credibility. Until he argues to replace himself with a diverse, Ilya needs to STFU about mass migration.

          1. Those Zimbabwe law profs would be ecstatic to make $25000 to replace Ilya in that cushy, no work job. Not only would that be a tremendous raise for them, but they likely have not been paid in months.

      2. This is just an excuse for not being libertarian. “Yeah, it’s immoral to criminalize drugs, but we can’t legalize them until we end the welfare state.” “Yeah, we should allow free movement of people, but we can’t until we end the welfare state.” “Yeah, we should liberalize gun laws, but we can’t until we get criminals off the streets.” “Yeah, we should have more free trade, but we can’t until other countries do.”

        To paraphrase Justice Roberts, the way to be more libertarian is to enact more libertarian policies.

        1. So, you’ve got a cartoon view of libertarianism, too? Shorn of all the nuance and attention to path dependence effects?

          1. “Area Man Who Claims To Be a Libertarian Has All Sorts of Excuses Why We Shouldn’t Enact Libertarian Policies.”

            1. “Area Man Who Was Libertarian Activist For Decades Explains That Libertarians Weren’t Always Idiots”

              1. You’re missing the point: I’m calling you a liar when you claim to have been a libertarian activist.

                1. Huh. Wonder why they asked me to run for State Rep back in ’88, then? Just picking random names out of the phone book, I guess.

                  1. Any part that would ask an anti-social, autistic, stale-thinking, delusional, bigoted, conspiracy theory-swallowing right-winger to run for office would probably wind up right about where the Libertarian Party is today.

  8. Personally, I think all law professors should quit their positions and demand that it be given to an illegal immigrant. They should also give the illegal immigrant their house (debt free) and all money they have in the bank or stock market. The professors can then move to Zimbabwe and work in a nickel mine or such. Then our nation can start working toward true “equity”.

  9. “Such a right would imply the power to coerce even currently existing residents to keep them from changing their cultural practices.”

    So because a national legislature may choose to restrict from some nations or cultures, it therefore has the power to outlaw domestic cultural changes of free people just being free.

    And that’s bad!

    And therefore restricting immigration is wrong!

    I am fine with immigration — come and live free, free from dictatorship and corruption, and make a better life for yourself and your family!

    But the listed argument is bizarre. Did I misunderstand it?

    1. I think there’s a “least restrictive means” argument to be made here. Restricting immigration access from foreigners who have no natural right to enter the country is an easy first-order way to prevent the kind of strong, sudden cultural drift that would quickly outmode the laws and balance of power that makes the state functional. It’s far less restrictive, than, say, compelling all the existing members of the country to share the same religion or believe in the same ideas, and it generally helps promote the state’s inherent compelling interest in self-preservation.

      At the end of the day, the whole point of national sovereignty is self-determination; nobody else gets to tell us (collectively) how we set the membership criteria. If a club doesn’t take the likes of me as a member, do I get mad at that club and stomp my feet crying about my human right to become a member, or do I just go join another club which better appreciates my talents?

      1. The problem is that Ilya has adopted a kind of universalist ethical view, where he thinks that Americans, and America’s government, are not entitled to prioritize in any way the welfare of Americans. No government on the face of the Earth operates on that basis, and no government that retained any element of democracy could.

        So, that the immigrants’ welfare would increase more than native welfare would decline simply settles the matter. Sure, he’d be predictably dooming millions of Americans to poverty, but rescuing even more millions of non-Americans from worse poverty totally makes up for that.

        1. No government on the face of the Earth operates on that basis, and no government that retained any element of democracy could.

          Nor did any group of humans ever act that way historically. And it’s a safe bet that Ilya doesn’t act that way in his personal or professional life either. Is his home open to all? His classes? His office? Every one of his speaking engagements? If we knock on his door do we get treated like family? (Why did we even have to knock then?)

          Ethical universalism is a situational virtue to be imposed on other people (a.k.a. lesser people).

        2. The problem is that Ilya has adopted a kind of universalist ethical view

          This is an odd use of the word “problem.”

          1. Hmm, well, Illya has hand waved away the existence of nations, and is trying to claim that people owe no moral duty to the countrymen

            So, we have delusion and amorality, and you say that’s “not a problem”?

            1. What is this source of moral duty? Why does being born on one side of an imaginary line on the ground create a moral duty but being born 10 yards away on the other side of this line not create this duty?

              Why is it “amoral” to think that whatever duties one has to another come from our status as human beings rather than our status as citizens?

              Ilya does not deny the existence of nations. Just their moral status.

              1. he said, ignoring history and reality.

                Because everyone can’t have everything. That’s why. Choices get made. A guy makes choices for the benefit of those he hopes will make reciprocal choices when he is in need.

                You do too. That’s why you happily let your friends and family do things you don’t happily let random strangers do. (Assuming you’re a human, I guess. You don’t have much understanding of human behavior.)

          2. It’s kind of a problem for Ilya if he actually expects to persuade many people.

            1. He’s got the human-behavior-denial crowd all sown up. And the anti-Americans will go along with him as long as they see a way to make life worse for Americans. (Together that’s a sadly large number of people.)

      2. Open boarders is the natural status. Having national boundaries is artificial.

        1. Funny thing, then, that so many species establish territories, and defend them against incursion by other groups of the same species.

        2. Absolutely the opposite of the truth. There has never been a situation in human history where some kind of territorialism didn’t exist. What planet do you even live on?

        3. I don’t know about that, most primates are pretty territorial.

          But, in any case once we got opposable thumbs we pretty much renounced the natural state.

          1. Parts of it. Not the territorialism, certainly.

        4. Nations are artificial

          Borders on nations are a defining characteristic of them

          How much does your position have to suck, that you go to such obviously weak “arguments”?

  10. “… allowing them in would have various negative side-effects … As I explain in those earlier publications, nearly all such objections are wrong, overblown, or can be ameliorated by “keyhole solutions” that are less draconian than exclusion.”

    Shorter version: we can ignore an infinite amount of harm to locals by hand-waving, blind assertions, and making up fantasy “solutions” that would never, ever be enacted.

    If you want to know why some people don’t give academics much credit, it’s because of this sort of crap. Instead of trying to make policy fit the people and the systems that exist, they make up narratives about the people to fit the policy they prefer.

  11. It seems these days, as compared to pre WWII, we have more homeless people and fewer “tramps” or “hobos”. I wonder why? Does it fit with a decline in US mobility?

  12. WTF is voting with your feet? Is that moving to some new neck of the woods where your voice is better heard?

    I can’t move, can’t afford to. I’m stuck here in NC and the little banana republic of Asheville with all its insolent, unconscionable politicians. So I’ll continue to raise hell here against some very caustic injustices, including those of bad, rotten judges. The dishonesty prevails as long as everyone is silent about it. And people are scared shitless here.

    Did you know that the power to tax is the power to destroy?

  13. The problem with your proposed solution is that it does not in fact solve the problem you claim it does

    What it does do is create a floating pool of serfs to be used by businessmen, and then thrown away when they’re no longer helpful.

    See “Okies” in the 1930s.

    If you end all US immigration restrictions, then peopel will come here wanting to work.

    They will come here, willing to take less pay, and / or endure worse work / living conditions, than will the American workers, who have the US “safety net” to protect them if they can’t find a job.

    Now, if the new arrivals immediately because eligible for the US “safety net”, then we won’t have “workers voting with their feet”, we’ll have “welfare case voting with their feet”. Because why work a hard, sh!tty job, when you can have a life much better than the home country just by getting here and going on welfare?

    So, assuming Illya actually wants “workers” to come here instead of welfare cases, that means the new arrivals have to be in a situation where either they find a job, or they’re out. Which means they can’t demand raises, they can’t complain about unsafe or illegal working conditions, because if they do any of that they’re gone.

    So, what Illya’s actually calling for is a “race to the bottom” where all US citizens either have a job that is protected from foreign competition (bar exam, rules for who can be come a doctor, professional certification requirements, etc), or else live on whatever crumbs the welfare system gives them (for which they’d better vote for the approved politicians, or else they lose their crumbs. Oh, and they’d also better bow down to the “social workers” who deliver those crumbs. Offend one of them, and no crumbs for you!)

    It’s pretty much the diametric opposite of liberty for Americans. But apparently Illya doesn’t give a sh!t about them.

    SAnd he really doesn’t care all that much for the Okie serfs who’d get imported to take all the jobs that Americans would demand real money and safe conditions to do.

    But hey, upper class Americans will be able to hire lots of cheap day labor. What could be more important than that?

  14. I tried voting with my feet, and the election judge demanded that I put my shoes and socks back on. Fascist.

    1. HR1 won’t let them make rules like that, I hear.

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