00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. His new book is Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. Welcome back to the show, Ilya.
00:22 Ilya Somin: Thank you very much for having me.
00:25 Trevor Burrus: Now, you wrote a book called Democracy and Political Ignorance, which was the subject of a previous Free Thoughts, how is this book related to that one?
00:34 Ilya Somin: Both of them focus on significant problems that exist with traditional ballot box voting and explore how voting with your feet can be better. But the difference is that the previous book focused narrowly on the problem of political ignorance, whereas this one focuses on voting with your feet more broadly and looks at other advantages that voting with your feet can have that go beyond simply alleviating the problem of ignorance. Also this one, unlike the previous book, deals with international migration, as well as foot voting that’s internal to a particular country, and it also looks at a variety of different objections to both domestic and international foot voting that the previous book didn’t consider because it had a narrower scope.
01:21 Aaron Ross Powell: What does foot voting mean?
01:23 Ilya Somin: Sure, so you can vote with your feet in three different kind of ways. And all of them involve choosing what sorts of government policies you want to live under. One is the one that we most think of when we think of voting with your feet is deciding what jurisdiction you want to live under in a federal system, a state or local government, for example, based on that government’s policies. Another is foot voting through international migration, leaving one country and going to another because your new destination has better policies, maybe less oppressive and so forth. And then finally, you can vote with your feet in the private sector. For example, by choosing between private plan communities or by choosing various goods and services in civil society organizations in the private sector, many of which actually can provide services that are similar to those provided by regional or local governments.
02:17 Ilya Somin: So the key thing that differentiates voting with your feet from ballot box voting is that when you vote with your feet, you make a choice that by itself has a high likelihood of making a difference. Whereas when you vote in an election, the chance that your vote will make a difference to the outcome is almost always infinitesimally small, about 1 in 60 million in a US presidential election, but even in a local or a state election, it’s still going to be very small in almost all cases. Whereas when you vote with your feet, that’s a choice where your decision is actually highly likely to make a difference, at least if you’re allowed to move around freely.
02:56 Trevor Burrus: You have a personal incidence of foot voting in your past that you write about in the book.
03:02 Ilya Somin: I have more than one instance of foot voting in my past, but the big one in particular is that I’m originally from the Soviet Union. My parents very wisely chose to leave the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and go to the US, and out of that foot voting decision, almost everything good that has ever happened to me in my life is primarily the result of that decision. Whatever I have achieved is far less a consequence of my own talents and efforts than it is a consequence of the difference between the Soviet Union and the United States, or now, between Russia and the United States, for all its flaws, the US is vastly better.
03:40 Trevor Burrus: Let’s get a little bit into the kind of… I think, maybe central idea of the book, which is why these things work better, these kind of decisions. And so, there’s some part where you go over some of the concepts in democracy and political ignorance, but what’s… What is wrong with voting in general?
03:57 Ilya Somin: So there’s a lot of them, but the two that matter most in this book for the argument that I make are the following: First, as I already mentioned, when you vote at the ballot box, you have only a tiny probability of actually affecting the outcome. So that puts a severe limitation on your political freedom. If you have only a one in a million chance of determining what kinds of opinions you’re allowed to express, we wouldn’t say that you have meaningful freedom of speech. Similarly, if you have only a one in a million chance of being able to decide what religion you want to practice or choose not to practice one at all, if that’s your preference, we wouldn’t say you have meaningful religious freedom.
04:37 Ilya Somin: So it’s somewhat strange to say that you can have meaningful political choice, when in fact, you have only a one in a million chance or even much less than that in most elections of actually affecting the outcome. Second and closely related to it, precisely because when you vote at the ballot box, you have so little chance of affecting outcomes, that gives people incentives to be what scholars call “rationally ignorant.” That is, there’s very little payoff to paying much attention to political information, to government and public policy, if your only reason for doing so is to be a better voter. And therefore, most of the public actually in fact does know very little about government policy, about the candidates, the parties, the issues at stake in elections. There’s pretty overwhelming evidence for that, I discuss some of it in this book. I discuss it more fully in my previous book that you mentioned, Democracy and Political Ignorance. So we usually say that for important decisions in your life, there should be informed consent.
05:38 Ilya Somin: For example, the American Medical Association requires informed consent before doctors can treat or operate on patients. On the other hand, there’s almost never informed consent for government policies because voters have so little incentive to actually learn about the issues at stake. On the other hand, when you vote with your feet, you have much better incentive to be well-informed precisely because your choice is one that has a high chance of mattering.
06:06 Ilya Somin: If you’re like most people, you probably devote more time and effort to deciding what television to buy or what smartphone to buy than you do to deciding who to vote for for president or in any other election. It’s not because your television is more important than who governs the country or that it deals with more complicated issues, it’s because when you decide what television to buy, you know that’s a choice that will make a difference. Whereas when you flip on the TV and you have the misfortune of seeing the president there, you know that your chance of affecting who that’s going to be is almost non-existent. And so therefore, foot voting has two big advantages over ballot box voting.
06:49 Ilya Somin: First, it’s a decision that actually matters and second, precisely because it matters, there’s a high chance of making a difference, you take it more seriously and people become better informed. They seek out more information than they would have otherwise, and they also do a better job of trying to evaluate that information, at least in a reasonably unbiased way.
07:13 Aaron Ross Powell: Comparing voting and foot voting, so, it’s consequential in the sense that if I move it has a large impact on my life in a way that me, as you said me voting traditional style in an election, it’s a vanishingly small chance it’s going to do anything. But voting is also sending information, and I’m wondering about the noisiness of foot voting compared to traditional voting. That if I’m a governor of a state and people are leaving my state, it doesn’t tell me much about why they’re leaving, and presumably I don’t want them to leave unless I have some interest in diminishing the population of the state, but it’s hard unless I survey them, it’s hard to tackle that problem, and that people leave a state for a lot of reasons, some of them political, some of them not. I left Colorado to move to Washington, DC. But it wasn’t because I objected to any of the political stuff in Colorado, it was because I happened to get a job in DC, but that doesn’t show up in the kind of foot voting aggregate information. So how does it meaningfully change policy, if it’s like, if it seems so under-determined from an informational standpoint?
08:26 Ilya Somin: So I think there’s really three issues here. One is that when you analyze this, you have to compare it to real world ballot box voting, and it turns out that real world ballot box voting also sends noisy signals. If you vote for Biden versus Trump or vice versa, you might do that for any number of different reasons and the mere act of voting doesn’t by itself tell you what your reason was. So maybe you voted because you prefer Trump’s foreign policy or economic policy or maybe it was for some other kind of reason, you preferred a particular candidate’s personality versus the opponent’s and in and of itself, the voting decision doesn’t tell you the answer. You can try to use survey data to tease out the answer, but of course we also have survey data on why people move. And we also have lots of other studies which discuss what kinds of government policies tend to attract foot voters and what kinds lead to out-migration. So interested governors or other state officials who want to adjust their policies to avoid losing foot voters and hopefully to attract more, they can study the state and indeed some of them do, but let’s assume the worst and say that they just totally ignore it and they don’t pay attention to it.
09:41 Ilya Somin: Still, there’s tremendous advantages to foot voting because people still have the option of moving to other areas where the policies are ones that they like better, so they have more meaningful political choice even if the options presented to them were not developed with the specific goal of attracting them in mind. And that’s also an advantage over ballot box voting where with ballot box voting, if your preferred candidate loses, you don’t have a recourse during, at least during the period of time when the winning candidate will be in power. So it’s important to compare the realistically feasible options on both sides. Finally, there is the argument which I address in some detail in chapter 1 of the book which says, well, foot voting isn’t really political ‘cause often people move for reasons that are not caused by government policy, but rather they move for jobs or for housing, or for other kinds of reasons. And here, I have a couple of different answers to this. One is many of the so-called non-political reasons for moving are in fact heavily influenced by government policy, the availability of jobs certainly is, the availability of housing is. And the same thing is true of many other seemingly non-political things that potential foot voters might want.
10:58 Ilya Somin: I don’t deny that sometimes people’s moves are influenced by things that are complete. We are almost completely unaffected by government policies such as the weather, but a very high proportion of the moving that we see is at least partially related to government policy. That’s definitely true for internal migration, it’s even more true for international migration, where it’s overwhelmingly policy-driven. So, yes, the signal can be somewhat noisy, but it’s at least equally noisy for ballot box voting and when you vote with your feet, at least people more carefully think through the decisions that they make. And whatever signal they send is a much better considered one than it would be otherwise with ballot box voting. And with foot voting, unlike with ballot box voting, even if you completely fail at sending a signal and government officials have no idea why it is that people are moving, still those people are still exercising meaningful political choice, whereas the same is not true if the signals of ballot box voting get distorted or not recognized, as certainly happens with some regularity. We’re still debating four years later why exactly it is that Trump won an unexpected victory in 2016 and there’s a lot of doubt on some issues to what kind of signal was sent.
12:19 Trevor Burrus: Isn’t it important, though, that we like also fix voting, in so far as we can make voting better as opposed to telling everyone to leave. If you don’t like it, leave. If they leave, then they presumably go to a place that ends up having, let’s say, a democracy and they’re back in a similar place where political ignorance is a huge problem. And so, maybe they should stay in their own countries or their own states and actually work on fixing that rather than just leaving.
12:49 Ilya Somin: So this is an argument I also address in some detail in the book, and I think it can also be answered at several different levels. One is that changing policy to facilitate more foot voting by decentralizing power and breaking down barriers to mobility is itself a fix for some of the problems of democracy. It means fewer issues will be dependent on ballot box voting where we have very little meaningful choice and also strong incentives to be ignorant and more decisions can be made through foot voting, including in the private sector where if decisions are left there, then they may not require a voting, a ballot box voting process at all. So this is a fix, it’s not simply quote unquote running away, it’s particularly a fix when you recognize that it can create incentives for government officials to adopt better policies in order to attract taxpayers or try to incentivize them not to leave. So it’s both an indirect fix in that it enables more people to seek out better opportunities without being dependent on ballot box voting, and it also creates better incentives for the government officials that make policy. There is also, I think, a moral dimension to this, which this argument is much more often used in the context of international migration when people say, “Well, people shouldn’t leave, they should try to stay home and fix their own countries,” quote unquote.
14:23 Ilya Somin: I think there is a couple of problems with this. One is it assumes that the person’s labor somehow belongs to that country or to the majority of the population therein, and it’s inimical to the basic liberal principle, not just libertarian principle, but any liberal principle of any kind that people own their own labor and their own lives, it’s not owned by the government or by the majority of the population. And if you really buy this fix their own country argument, then the logical implication of it is not only do people have a moral duty to stay, but that they have a moral duty of undertaking whatever profession would most benefit the country, even if they personally prefer to do some other kind of work. If what your country really needs is more doctors, for example, or more engineers but you prefer to be an artist, then maybe it should be permissible to force you to become an engineer or a doctor, and not pursue your career as an artist. Finally, I think it’s worth noting that in many countries, but even also in many jurisdictions within liberal democracies like the US, it’s not easier, sometimes almost impossible for an individual to make a meaningful difference to government policy by staying.
15:36 Ilya Somin: If the ancestors of most modern-day Americans had stayed in Europe or Asia, and tried to fix Tsarist Russia or the Chinese empire or the Austro-Hungarian empire, it’s very unlikely that they would have achieved very much. Whereas by moving to the US, they enabled themselves to have a freer life, and also their children and grandchildren as well. So I think those points are very relevant. Finally, I would note that for international migration when people move to a freer and wealthier society, they often do actually help their relatives back home. One way of doing so is remittances, that they send actual money back to their relatives. In some countries like El Salvador remittances are a substantial proportion of the national income, 25% or 30%. Moreover, there’s some evidence, albeit imperfect evidence, that a nation which has a large diaspora living in freer societies, that helps facilitate the flow of ideas back to their original home country, which in turn can promote a least at the margin democratization and liberalization and improve public policy in that country at least somewhat.
16:50 Aaron Ross Powell: Do we have examples of this working, even on a larger scale in practice? I’m thinking of California has been bleeding population for quite some time. And we can say that a lot of that has to do with say the incredible tax burden and how hard it is to, the cost of real estate, and all sorts of things that are all policy-driven. But California doesn’t seem to be rolling that sort of stuff back, similar with New York or with other countries. Are there examples of people fleeing a jurisdiction leading to significant change in the public policy of that jurisdiction?
17:30 Ilya Somin: Yeah. So obviously a lot depends on what you consider significant, but there are certainly examples of important policy change. States like Massachusetts and other Northeastern states in the ’70s and ’80s did adjust some of their tax and regulatory policies when they increasingly were losing people and businesses to the South and the Southwest. California actually under Governor Brown, who left office a year or two ago, they did actually alter some of their bad policies, and there is now also a movement, an active movement in California, to reform zoning, which is the principal obstacle to affordable housing in that state. I’m not saying that’s purely driven by out-migration, but it is a factor in it. I already mentioned the fact of diasporas creating pressure for liberalization, that has certainly happened in some Central American countries, and arguably in some African countries and elsewhere as well. But I don’t claim that this mechanism is foolproof and I don’t claim that this is one of the main arguments for foot voting. I would, I regard this as a side benefit.
18:34 Ilya Somin: Even if the home jurisdiction doesn’t change at all, or your initial home jurisdiction doesn’t change at all, giving people an opportunity to vote with their feet is still an enormous benefit for both human freedom and also for economic well-being as well. Indeed, the more resistant to change the initial jurisdiction is, the stronger the case for maximizing foot voting opportunities.
18:58 Trevor Burrus: It seems that a federal system like the US’s is important in this regard, having meaningful local control that allows for variation amongst these things. But is it the case, though, that, the federal system is also, those sources of local control help sort of perpetuate slavery and the bad [19:15] ____ instance of slavery and Jim Crow laws, and a lot of things that were not desirable from a local governance standpoint. Is that a concern we should have?
19:25 Ilya Somin: It is to some extent, and that’s something I discuss in some detail in the book. In the case of slavery, which I actually mentioned near the start of the book and talk about Fredrick Douglass, who of course was both a great opponent of slavery, but also a, this is less well known about him, a champion of free international migration, because he saw the two actually as linked. Slavery, of course, is the ultimate example of a system where you can’t vote with your feet. The slave is trapped under the control of his or her master, unless the master happens to be nice enough to free them, which rarely happens. So foot voting is actually the exact opposite of slavery. Moreover, many harmful local or state government policies which are oppressive, I think the solution to them is actually greater decentralization, that is moving the decision-making back down to the level of the individual where they can choose for themselves.
20:20 Ilya Somin: That’s an obvious answer to the problem of slavery, where the answer is to allow the former slaves themselves to determine who they want to work for and where they want to live. It’s also, I think, the answer is the problem of Jim Crow; after all, segregation was overriding private decisions on where people might want to work, where they want to live, and so on. Even if somebody wanted to create an integrated workplace or hire African-American workers for certain positions or rent to them, or what not, Jim Crow systems often would forbid that. That said, I don’t claim that the maximum possible decentralization is always best for minorities, or that central government power can never be of use to them. It is not my argument that everything should be decentralized completely, rather my argument in this book is that the possibility of expanding foot voting opportunities is an important consideration in favor of greater decentralization, both decentralization in the lower levels of government, but also decentralization all the way to the private sector, in many instances.
21:31 Ilya Somin: But I don’t claim that this outweighs all other possible considerations, and in some cases, there may be some great problem that can only be resolved by the central government or even only through international cooperation. Global warming may be such a problem, there may be others as well. In fact, I’m sure there are at least some others. However, many aspects of government policy can be decentralized much more than they currently are in the US. If you believe, for instance, that New Zealand or Denmark or Switzerland can have its own education policy, its own healthcare policy, its own policies in many environmental issues, there’s no reason why US states, or in many cases, even US cities or localities, which have populations of comparable size to those smaller countries, they should be able to have their own independent policies in those issues as well, and there’s no reason to think that there’s some great loss that comes from having those policies be done by a smaller-scale jurisdiction as opposed to a larger one.
22:31 Ilya Somin: Things like global warming or other cases of massive worldwide pollution or like that may be different, the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world may be a different case as well, but those kinds of situations, I think, are the exception rather than the rule.
22:46 Trevor Burrus: If we allowed states to really get into the laboratories of democracy, sort of ways of… If states… They are allowed to, but if we encouraged this even more, such as creating a massive kind of European-style centralized healthcare or socialized healthcare system, would we also have to start thinking about whether or not we should let those states do things that they currently are not allowed to, such as close their borders, or do other things to sort of favor their citizens over other citizens because of the fear of everyone just going to that state to take advantage of it?
23:18 Ilya Somin: My answer to that is that the whole point of decentralization under this framework is to enable foot voting, therefore closing their borders either to in-migration or out-migration is exactly the thing that you don’t want. There is the issue which I address at some length later in the book, about the fear of over-burdening the welfare state, that if too many migrants coming in and go on welfare. This argument is usually used against international migration, but like most arguments against international migration, it can also be used against internal migration as well. And I develop a three-part test in the book for evaluating these kinds of consequentialist objections to free migration. See, before allowing restrictions on migration, you need to consider three questions. One, how big a problem is it really? Often it turns out that it’s not much of a problem at all. Indeed, the data on migration in welfare states overwhelmingly shows that areas with lots of immigrants in a population do not have more welfare spending per capita than those with relatively few or no immigrants.
24:28 Ilya Somin: The second question to ask is, is there a keyhole solution that can address this problem without restricting migration? That is, is there some other less draconian fix than just keeping people out. And very often there is, for welfare there clearly is, in that you can simply restrict migrants’ eligibility for welfare benefits, as the US and many other countries, in fact, already do. Third, let’s say that it’s a real problem, and there is no keyhole solution, then you can still perhaps address the problem by tapping the vast new wealth created by migration. Economists estimate that if we had free migration throughout the world, we would probably double world GDP, that is the world would be twice as wealthy, roughly speaking, as it currently is. If we free up barriers to migration within the US, the gains are somewhat smaller, but they would still be very large.
25:22 Ilya Somin: For example, US GDP might be as much as 9% or 10% bigger if we just eliminate many of the barriers to migration created by restrictive zoning, which makes it hard to build new housing in areas like California that many people would otherwise want to migrate to. So that’s an enormous source of wealth, to the extent that freeing up migration can cause negative side effects. We can use some of that wealth to alleviate them, if there isn’t the keyhole solution, and if the problem really is a genuine one. In the case of the welfare state, an enormous increase in societal wealth can enable you to fund more welfare programs if they end up being more expensive. It can also enable you to fund various initiatives to prevent people from going on welfare in the first place, and so forth.
26:12 Aaron Ross Powell: So we have the potential problem, so we just discussed, of people coming in. If it’s got a robust welfare state, and you’re letting people in, they come in and take advantage of that, but there seems to be like there’s a potential flipside problem of that, which is if you want a state that provides social services, those come at a cost, we have to pay for them. If we want a state that provides welfare, those come at a cost, we have to pay for them, even if it’s for people who are already there or we already think should qualify for it, so restricting welfare to new entrants doesn’t address it.
26:45 Aaron Ross Powell: But the people who most need those services and benefit from those services are also the ones who are not in a position to pay for them. It’s the wealthiest who can pay for it and also, wealthier people tend to be buffered from certainly not all of the bad policies of a state, but probably, but are sets of them that lower income people aren’t buffered from, criminal justice issues and other things. And so could we potentially run into a problem where letting people vote with their feet that basically, the people who pay for the good stuff for the poor all say, “Well, I don’t need that good stuff for the poor. I’m going to move to somewhere where they’re not going to take these resources from me.” And then, the poor have nobody left to support them.
27:30 Trevor Burrus: We call this the Galt’s Gulch problem, basically.
27:32 Aaron Ross Powell: Yes.
27:32 Trevor Burrus: Sure.
27:33 Ilya Somin: So this is sort of an interesting argument, because the usual critique of free migration is that it’s bad for the poor, that poorer workers will come in, lower-skilled workers will come in and compete with the poor, whereas almost all economic analyses agree that even though it’s done by restrictionists, economists tend to agree that free migration is actually good for the wealthy, because more workers come in, they can employ them, also a more productive society with more productive workers is good for people who own capital and have investment income. So opening up migration, I think, far from leading the wealthy to leave, they will actually be, want to be in the society which is open to migration and therefore captures those high GDP gains. That said, it can be the case that a society because they have various problematic policies, might incentivize the wealthy to leave, not because they’re allowing too much migration into the society, but because that society itself has bad policies and so the wealthy leave or invest their money elsewhere, or what not.
28:49 Ilya Somin: On this, I would make the same kind of points I made before, which is that whether somebody is wealthy or whether they’re poor, they’re not morally required to stay in a particular society and try to service it, the wealthy own their labor much as the poor do. So if a society want to attract people who will pay taxes, they need to adopt policies that will facilitate that and there is a long list of such policies that can be done, in terms of creating a good regulatory environment, having high quality public services, strong protection for property rights and investment income and so on. So I would add, however, that by freeing up barriers to migration, it would create enormous new wealth. I think that enormous new wealth would actually disproportionately benefit the poor rather than the wealthy, but there would be plenty of benefit for the wealthy as well. So the creation of new income by that source will in fact fund, create funds for more welfare programs and services if we need them, but even more importantly, it will help ensure that many more people in fact do not need such services because they’ll have opportunities to make more money on their own and purchase their own services or get them through the market and the like.
30:14 Ilya Somin: So, I think, therefore, that this fear that free migration will lead to the wealthy somehow being harmed and therefore wanting to leave, I think that’s very unlikely. It’s not even the objection that is most commonly made. Those societies where wealthy people do want to flee, they’re actually ones where poor people tend to want to flee as well, so, wealthy people are fleeing Venezuela right now or trying to, but poor people don’t want to be there either because the government policies are horrible. Similarly, most wealthy people probably wouldn’t want to be in North Korea, but again, any poor people who can flee there would want to flee also. So it’s hard for a society to be attractive to poor people and yet completely unattractive to the wealthy or vice versa. As a general rule, actually, societies that are well-run, tend to be attractive to both sets.
31:11 Trevor Burrus: Isn’t there something kind of inegalitarian about the foot voting, the ability of… Who has the ability to do foot voting in a general sense, this is true for migration and also in terms of the private sector, where the rich are the ones who can afford to get out of public schools, for example, and then also the costs of moving. The kind of careers that are easier to move tend to be ones that are the kind of, I think the phrase is, I can’t remember who said this, but the somewheres versus the anywheres, if you’re a member of the new economy, the ideas-based economy, you can probably work from anywhere, but if you’re a factory worker or something like that you have to kind of be in a locality. So there’s just something inherently inegalitarian about saying leave when there’s a lot of people who can’t leave.
32:00 Ilya Somin: So this this argument is often made that really foot voting can only benefit the relatively wealthy because it’s easier for them to move. History shows the exact opposite is actually true. What foot voting is relatively harder for people who own valuable fixed assets that can’t be moved like property and land, by definition such people actually tend to be relatively affluent. If you own valuable land or some other valuable fixed asset, you’re probably not poor. And if you looked historically, who has tended to vote with their feet, it actually does tend to be the poor and the oppressed, that’s how America, Canada and Australia, many other countries that were destinations for immigrants, for people, that’s how you had the great migration of African-Americans from the Southern states to the North, most of those African-Americans were not fleeing because they were wealthy and therefore, they were the anywheres that come from Stephen Harper’s description of that category in his book.
32:55 Ilya Somin: To the contrary, they were fleeing the South because they were horribly oppressed there. It is true that there are moving costs which make moving difficult for some people. In the book, I propose several ways to reduce that problem. One is, to the extent that we decentralize power to lower levels of government and often to the private sector, people can move with much lower moving costs, moving from one city to another is cheaper than moving from one state to another. If you can vote with your feet in the private sector, often you can do so without physically migrating anywhere at all. For example, if we have school choice, you can choose a different or better school in your same area without actually physically moving.
33:40 Ilya Somin: If furthermore within the US we can break down barriers to migration that make moving expensive, the big one that I already mentioned I think is zoning restrictions which make housing artificially scarce and artificially expensive in many of the most desirable areas where otherwise poor and lower middle class people would want to move to. And of course, at the international level we have actual legal bars to the point of like at the point of a gun, we keep out the poor, and in some cases at the point of a wall, we keep out people, most of them poor and oppressed who could otherwise move to a place where they would be happier and freer.
34:17 Ilya Somin: The final thing that I would note on this is that ballot box voting is also inegalitarian. There are some people who have much more political knowledge and much more ability to influence the political process than others. In the book I note that studies show that obviously people who participate in politics at a level that goes beyond simply voting, but also includes things like lobbying, political activism and so forth, only about 25% of the population engages in that kind of activity at all, and obviously only a much smaller percentage are able to engage in it to an extent that has a real chance of influencing government policy, so… And of course, those who have a higher chance of exercising influence are disproportionately the wealthy. So here, as with everything else, it’s a mistake to compare real world foot voting to idealized ballot box voting. You have to compare like to like, and when you do that, I think foot voting tends to Win those comparisons and it can win them even more if you make some of these sorts of reforms that I advocate.
35:26 Trevor Burrus: I was watching The Netflix limited documentary series Wild, Wild Country the other day, which if you haven’t seen, I highly suggest, but it’s about a basically a cult that moves into an Oregon county and kind of takes it over. And as I was watching it, it occurred to me that this was a good example of the kind of concerns that the restrictionists, immigration restrictionists in particular, but even within the United States, my parents are from Colorado, my parents live in Colorado, and the amount of people who have moved into Colorado, especially leaving California, have created problems that native Coloradans do not like. We’ve always been against people moving to Colorado, but they do not like what’s happening to, for the Californians moving into Colorado and how they’re turning it into California. You said this has always been a concern but you have… You do see real world examples of it. A lot of pro-immigration people seem to sometimes discount these concerns, but you can take small examples and say, yes, this state was fundamentally changed ‘cause all these people who left their state where they had bad policies came to the state that had good policies and now has bad policies. This would be a concern for you in the foot voting world?
36:37 Ilya Somin: This is another issue that I address in great detail in the book. This is the so-called argument of political externalities, that people might migrate from countries or in this case, states with bad policies, they move to states with better policies, but then they vote for politicians who restore the, or implement policies similar to ones they left behind. This is usually used as a justification for restricting international migration, but in principle and as a matter of logic it can just as easily be used for restricting internal migration. So you could, if you thought this was a really serious problem, try to bar Californians from moving to Colorado. And here, too, I think my three-part test applies.
37:20 Ilya Somin: One is you can ask yourself how big a problem is this really, and much of the time it’s severely overblown, for a couple of reasons. One is, when you look at data in the US, it turns out that the differences in political views between immigrants and natives are actually relatively small on most issues, and they actually converge more in the second and third generations. Second, new immigrants and even new internal migrants participate in politics at lower rates than natives do, so that further limits their impact. There is a potential downside to this, in that if the migrants actually might improve the political system, that is vote for better candidates than natives do, then you won’t get as much of the benefit of that, but if your fear is that they will vote for worse ones, then their lower levels of participation should give you some comfort.
38:16 Ilya Somin: So, finally, I would note that the number of migrants relative to natives would have to be extremely large for them to make a difference and they would have to be extremely skewed towards one set of political views. So, if immigrants make up 10% of the population and 60% of them are Democrats and 40% are Republicans, even if the immigrants vote at the same rate as natives and they instantly get the vote, that’s only a two-point swing in terms of the overall election, which is not that much. And of course in a real world, they often don’t vote at the same rate as natives and 10% is actually a very high number and so on.
38:58 Ilya Somin: So I would finally add that ironically this is more of an argument against internal migration than international migration, whereas internal migrants at least in the US almost instantly get the vote, whereas international migrants, they get it only after five years and even then only if they pass a civics test that about two-thirds of native-born Americans would fail. And that leads me to my second part of the three-part test here, which is, is there a keyhole solution, and the answer is yes, there is. We already have it, actually, for international migration, which is that you can limit access to the franchise for migrants. They don’t get it until a certain period of time has passed and until they have passed a certain kind of test of civics, you can lengthen the time and you can lengthen… Or you can make the test more difficult if you wanted to, to address these issues.
39:54 Ilya Somin: But I would add that here, as elsewhere, it’s a mistake to judge people by double standards. If you don’t think it’s wrong to… If you think it’s wrong to expel natives who would otherwise vote for bad candidates and bad policies, then you should ask yourself why is it really right to do that to somebody whose only difference from a native is that they were born on the wrong side of a line on the map. That where you were born seems like a morally arbitrary characteristic. And in general, in most other contexts, we oppose policies that discriminate among people based on who their parents are, or where they were born, we tend to reject the policies of feudalism which said if you’re born a noble you can live where you want, but if you’re born a serf, you’re not allowed to move around freely and you have a bunch of other legal rights for being born a noble.
40:46 Ilya Somin: So being born on the northern side of the Rio Grande versus the southern side is actually a morally irrelevant characteristic, much like whether you’re born the son of a serf, or the son of a noble or much like whether you’re born black, or white, or Hispanic or what not.
41:04 Aaron Ross Powell: Foot voting sounds a lot conceptually like thinking of voters as customers and the state or governments as providers of services. So I am a customer of the state that I live in, but if I don’t like their service or I don’t like the cost of it or someone else can offer me a better product elsewhere, I switch providers in the same way that I can switch which grocery store I use my feet to get into each week. Is that a fair way of thinking about this, that this is basically the free market for government services?
41:43 Ilya Somin: In a certain sense, yes, that the voters could choose as customers in a market do, the foot voters that is; however, the terminology of customers can be misleading in that it implicitly assumes that or makes you think that people are motivated purely by narrowly material considerations, like how much, how high their incomes will be and the like. Those are important considerations, but people are also motivated by a lot of other things, such as making their families better off, escaping horrible oppression of the kind that many foot voters are fleeing, particularly international migrants and refugees. So it therefore goes beyond simply I buy a car from Ford, rather than from General Motors, because the Ford car is cheaper or it has better gas mileage or something. It’s more like, I prefer the services of the US government over those of Cuba or Venezuela, because Cuba is horrifically oppressive in ways that go far beyond simply you’re not driving as nice a car or your income isn’t this high.
42:50 Aaron Ross Powell: I can see taking this argument, and if we think about it with the limits that you just placed on it, but if we still bring a bit more market thinking into this, and saying should the argument for foot voting scale all the way? So if foot voting works better than ballot box voting or at least works well in areas where ballot box voting doesn’t, should we aim instead at something even more radical, which is basically decoupling government services, like a decentralization thing, so that instead I can vote for the legal regime that I want by foot voting there or bringing my resources, an attachment there, I can vote for the welfare one that I want. Like why limit foot voting to geographic areas and states, as opposed to running the full way to say, like, polycentric legal orders and radical decentralization and all those kind of far, far libertarian dreams.
43:55 Ilya Somin: So, it’s a good question, and one I do take up somewhat in the book. There are sort of more radical and less radical versions of decoupling government services from location. The less radical one is the kind proposed by the Swiss economist Bruno Frey, which I talk about somewhat in the book, which says that in some case and to some extent we sometimes already have this, both in Switzerland and in the US, of you might be able to live in a given place but still choose which government provides certain services. To take a oft-used example, often you will sign a contract with some service provider, but the contract may be governed by the law of a jurisdiction different from the one that you live under. So if you have a credit card there’s a good chance if you look at the terms of that credit card, it will say something like the disputes are governed by the law of North Dakota, or something like that, even if you don’t live in North Dakota.
44:50 Ilya Somin: And as I note in the book, to the extent this is feasible, this would be a desirable reform and would further increase the benefits of foot voting. However, there might be practical limitations on it, such as it may be that some types of services only work if they go together as a package deal, and they’re hard to separate, and also some types of services there might be incentive problems such as collective action problems, public goods problems and the like. Now, in the more radical version of this argument, as some libertarian anarchists have been arguing for many years now, maybe you would want to abolish government coercion entirely and just leave everything just to the private sector. There are obviously a lot of issues with that and potential problems that go beyond the questions of foot voting that I address in this book. So I don’t try to address that possibility in this book, as to do so would require me to address a whole range of issues about how governments work, and collective action problems, and things like private protective associations and the like that I don’t have the space for in this book which already takes on a wide range of issues.
46:05 Ilya Somin: I would note, however, that everything I advocate in this book, unlike many things that anarchists advocate, everything I advocate in this book is compatible with what we would consider normal real-world governments operating more or less as they actually do. All I advocate specifically in this book is breaking down various barriers to mobility and various policies to deal with potential negative side effects which are actually similar, albeit in some case on a larger scale, but they’re similar to policies that already exist in many nations. So one of the good things, I think, about my approach compared to something like anarchism, is that what I advocate can be done without a completely radical reordering of the world; moreover, what I advocate can be done incrementally. So even if you can’t go all the way to full open borders, you can break down barriers to mobility much more than is the case today.
47:04 Ilya Somin: Even if you don’t completely abolish internal constraints on mobility like exclusionary zoning, you can certainly have less exclusionary zoning than we do now. Similarly, you can have greater decentralization of power to regional and local governments, a greater role for the private sector. And here is one point on which, I think, the anarchists do have a point, even if I wouldn’t go all the way with them. Many services that we think of as quintessentially governmental are already provided to a considerable degree by the private sector. For example, we say, “Well, if there’s anything that’s inherently governmental, it’s police protection against violence,” but in the United States, and not just the United States but in many European countries, we actually have more private security guards than public police. So security can be privately provided, maybe not all security, maybe not to the same extent, but we can incrementally increase opportunities for people to get private security, including through private planned communities, by expanding opportunities for people to make use of those. And that can be done without anything as radical as complete abolition of public police or public courts.
48:18 Ilya Somin: You might say, “Well, the private security guards may make mistakes or be abusive,” but, of course, we have those problems with public police as well. We’ve had many sad… We’ve had many notorious incidents with police engaging in excessive use of force. So here, as elsewhere, we want to compare like with like and we want to compare realistically feasible private institutions and realistically feasible decentralization in foot voting versus public institutions that also are realistically feasible, as opposed to idealized police or idealized ballot box voting, and so forth.
48:54 Trevor Burrus: We’re recording this in week 7,043 of quarantine lockdown, and that’s going to change and has been changing many aspects of life. And maybe one thing that could come out of this, we’ve seen some relaxation of some licensing laws and some things that you advocate, or restraints on mobility, but we also might see people starting to think that they don’t actually have to be in a location to work their job, perhaps. Do you see the future of foot voting like being a little bit brighter after this possibly, after this horrible time we’re in?
49:32 Ilya Somin: In the short run, unfortunately, I see it as being darker, because many nations, including the US, have enacted migration restrictions, either because of the COVID or using COVID as a pretext. We actually, right now, have the most severe restrictions on international migration and to some extent even on internal migration in all of American history. The US has never in its entire history been more closed to immigration than it is right now thanks to Donald Trump’s policy announced in April. And to the extent that these kinds of economic crises give a boost to nationalism and nationalism tends to be inimical to international migration, in the short run I think things will get worse before they get better. I hope I’m wrong about that. And in some of my writings recently I’ve talked about why it’s actually a mistake to enact migration restrictions as a result of pandemics, but that’s the direction we seem to be going in, at least in the short run. In the long run maybe things will be different.
50:32 Ilya Somin: It is true that the more you can decouple where you work from where you live, the more you can vote with your feet without, perhaps, reference to the specific details of a particular job, but how feasible that is I think will vary a lot by industry. And I think we should be careful not to over-generalize from the experiences of certain high-tech industries or the experience of certain types of professionals who are probably over-represented among the types of people who listen to these podcasts. But it would be a mistake to overstate that, but I would note, however, that expanding foot voting opportunities is actually often very beneficial to the kinds of people who do need to be in a particular location to do their jobs, because it can still give them access to a wider range of locations where those types of jobs are feasible, including locations where government policy makes it easier to do the job, makes it easier to earn a good income, and also makes it easier to get cheaper and higher quality housing.
51:43 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit on the web at www.libertarianism.org.