The Volokh Conspiracy

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Voting With Your Feet

My New "The Week" Article on "The Case for Empowering Americans to Vote with Their Feet"

How foot voting can expand political freedom for Americans, particularly the poor and disadvantaged.


The Week just published my article on "The Case for Empowering Americans to Vote with their Feet." It is in part based on the new revised edition of my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom. Here is an excerpt:

American democratic institutions are in crisis. One of the worst flaws of the status quo is the near-powerlessness of the individual voter over the policies which determine so much of daily life. Closely related is the need to promote opportunity and choice for the poor and disadvantaged. Both these problems can be greatly alleviated by expanding opportunities for people to "vote with their feet." If you don't like state or local laws, it should be easier to escape them.

We normally think of voting at the ballot box as our principal means of exercising political choice, and ballot-box voting has great value. But it also has two severe limitations: the very low odds that an individual vote will make a difference, and the resulting incentive to make poorly informed decisions. Foot voting is superior on both dimensions….

Sadly, over the last several decades, foot voting in America has become more difficult and costly, especially for the poor and disadvantaged, who have the most to gain. Fortunately, much can be done to alleviate these obstacles….

The single biggest problem is the rise of exclusionary zoning, which makes it difficult or impossible to build new housing in response to demand. If people cannot afford to live in areas with economic and social opportunities, they'll remain locked out from them — often trapped in failing communities where it is difficult to escape poverty. This is an area where there is a strong, even if often unrecognized common interest between the increasingly Republican white working class, and their mostly Democratic Black and Hispanic counterparts….

Much can be done as well to expand foot voting opportunities in the private sector, including by breaking down regulations that inhibit the establishment of new private communities and expanding school choice options, especially for the poor. Studies show private schools included in school choice programs generally provide better educational services than public equivalents, even when controlling for the socioeconomic background of students and other similar variables. In addition, competition from private schools under voucher programs leads to improvement by public schools in the same areas….

Foot voting is also increasingly inhibited by the enormous growth of federal spending and regulation. It is impossible to "vote with your feet" against federal government policies except through the costly step of leaving the country entirely.

This problem can be mitigated by devolving control over more issues to state and local governments and to the private sector. Doing so can also mitigate the dangerous polarization that has done so much to poison our political system: With fewer issues decided by the federal government, people no longer need to feel so much fear at the prospect of the opposing party controlling the White House and Congress.