Archive | Voting With Your Feet

Immigration and Political Freedom

I recently wrote a guest post for the Open Borders blog on migration and political freedom. The connection between the two is often ignored in debates over immigration policy. Here’s an excerpt:

There is widespread agreement that political freedom is a fundamental human right – that everyone is entitled to substantial freedom of choice in deciding what type of government policies they will live under. This is one of the main justifications for democracy. Voting enables the people to exercise political choice. But the principle of political freedom also has implications for international migration. The same logic that justifies giving people a right vote at the ballot box also implies that they should have a right to vote with their feet. This is particularly true of people living under authoritarian governments, where foot voting is often the only feasible way of exercising any political choice at all. But even for those fortunate enough to live under a democracy, the right to migrate elsewhere is an important aspect of political freedom. In both cases, obviously, the right to emigrate is of little value unless there is also a right to immigrate to some other nation….

Although the democracy has spread rapidly in recent decades, the majority of the world’s population still live in undemocratic states….

Residents of many authoritarian nations can exercise political freedom only through international migration or not at all. If developed democracies refuse admission to migrants from such countries, they effectively deprive them of their political freedom. They therefore become complicit in violating a fundamental human right. One can object that Westerners are not responsible for the lack of democracy in many Third World nations. But as philosopher Michael Huemer explains, immigration restrictions don’t merely leave in place poor conditions created by others. They involve the active use

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More on African Americans Voting with Their Feet

Below, Ilya discusses the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the 1940s and 50s as an example of poor people “voting with their feet.” It’s that, though it’s a bit more complicated than that, too, because federal New Deal policies set out to limit acreage farmed in the South (and thus a prime source of employment for African Americans) just as mechanization was started to also substantially affect southern agricultural employment. Meanwhile, New Deal policies also sought to undermine low wage southern industrial employment, which is why the federal minimum wage was set at a national scale even though wages (and cost of living) in the Deep South were one-third of those in the North. So there was a “push” and a “pull.” The pull was more freedom and economic opportunity in the North, the push being political and economic factors that left millions of southern blacks unemployed.

Ironically, given that Ilya’s interlocutor suggests that African Americans left the South for “good union jobs,” in fact those good union jobs, especially for unskilled workers, were beginning to disappear thanks to international competition just as black migration kicked into high gear, leaving many newly arrived residents without good employment prospects–though still far better off than in the South, where public assistance was scant and an unemployed black male could find himself harassed and arrested by the authorities. (And the unions, besides in many cases having a track record of discrimination, were harmful in another way–thanks to strict union seniority policies, newly arrived blacks were the first laid-off when layoffs occurred.) In a cruel twist of historical fate, however, the South soon became an economic boom region, while the inner cities to which blacks had fled went into severe decline.

Anyway, none of that’s to deny […]

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More on Voting With Your Feet and the Poor

At America Magazine, Robert D. Sullivan has responded to my post in which I criticized his earlier post claiming that “voting with your feet” only benefits the affluent.

Sullivan’s most recent post actually outlines many areas of agreement between us. He now recognizes that foot voting can in fact benefit the poor, and that the US should strive to promote interjurisdictional mobility and foot voting opportunities. He also correctly points out that foot voting is sometimes inhibited by local land use regulations, which artificially increase the cost of housing, thereby making it difficult or impossible for the poor or the lower middle class to move to the area. I have criticized such regulations myself. But it’s also important to recognize that, even if such laws continue to exist in many jurisdictions, the poor and lower middle class can still engage in effective foot voting so long as there are many others that don’t have them.

In discussing the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north in the early 20th century (which I noted as an important historical example of successful foot voting by the poor), Sullivan points out that it was in large part driven by job opportunities. This is certainly true. But job opportunities were better for blacks in the north than the south in large part because the former had different and better government policies – including far less in the way of policies designed to segregate and otherwise oppress blacks. Black migrants of the era also cited Jim Crow as an independent reason for the leaving the South, even aside from its effect on job opportunities. I discuss these issues at greater length in this article and in Chapter 5 of my book. Sullivan similarly claims that the Great Migration was prompted by the availability […]

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Voting With Your Feet Works for the Poor, Too

At the America Magazine website, Robert David Sullivan responds to my book and Cato Unbound essay arguing that foot voting leads to better-informed decisions than ballot box voting by claiming that foot voting is only likely to benefit the wealthy:

I haven’t seen the book, but Somin’s essay reads like a whispered call for solidarity among highly educated (which usually means high-income) Americans. The message is: Why let those people make demands on government when they don’t even know what government does? Shifting power to smaller and smaller political jurisdictions also has implications for the well-being of Americans who don’t live in affluent communities. Look at public schools, which in most states are largely funded at the local level. Our public education system allows for “voting with your feet,” if you’re financially able, by moving to a county or town with high property values. But in this case, “decentralization” is a legitimate-sounding way of banishing from your mind poorer neighborhoods just a few miles away.

In reality, as I discuss at length in the book and elsewhere (e.g. here and here), foot voting historically has benefited the poor as much or more than the affluent. This is true for several reasons: the poor usually have more to gain from moving to jurisdictions with better job opportunities and policies (in part because they are so much worse off to begin with), and they are less likely to own immobile assets such as land that are difficult or impossible to take with you. Dramatic examples of effective foot voting by the relatively poor include the movement of millions of poor African-Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the twentieth century, and the movement of poor and lower middle class people to Texas and various southern and […]

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My Response to Heather Gerken’s Comment on Democracy and Political Ignorance

Cato Unbound has posted my response to Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken’s thoughtful critique of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. Over the next day or two, they will also post my response to the insightful commentaries by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics and political theorist Jeffrey Friedman. The conversation will continue over the next couple weeks, as each commentator will have the opportunity to respond further to me or to each other, or to raise new issues related to the book and my lead essay.

Here is a brief excerpt from my response to Prof. Gerken:

Gerken raises two important potential criticisms of my argument that people make better decisions through foot voting than ballot box voting. First, she contends that knowledge of the two major parties’ positions can enable otherwise ignorant voters to make good decisions at the ballot box. Second,…. she worries that foot voting may often be too difficult because of moving costs.

These are legitimate points, and I address both at some length in my book… On balance, however, neither seriously undermines the informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting….

Gerken interestingly contrasts my “fox”-like view that informed voting requires knowledge of a range of issues with the “hedgehog” view that all voters need to know is the difference between the two parties. It’s worth noting that Philip Tetlock’s important research on the predictive accuracy of policy experts shows that “fox” experts who take many variables into account make far more accurate judgments than “hedgehogs” who focus only on one or two big ideas.[5] Voters obviously don’t need to know as much as policy experts. But narrowly focused hedgehog decisionmaking is unlikely to work well even for them. It is especially problematic in a

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Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on Political Ignorance

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently gave a speech lamenting widespread political ignorance in the United States:

Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the crowd that packed into a Boise State ballroom to hear her Thursday.

About one-third can name the three branches of government. Fewer than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

“Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name,” she said.

O’Connor touted civics education during her keynote address at the “Transforming America: Women and Leadership in the 21st Century” conference, put on by the Andrus Center for Public Policy. She also described being a female lawyer in the 1950s, and challenged her listeners to help the next generation of leaders reach their goals….

“The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance,” O’Connor said.

That ignorance starts in the earliest years of a child’s schooling, she said, but often continues all the way through college and graduate school.

O’Connor argued that learning about citizenship is just as important for American children as learning multiplication or how to write their names.

“We have to ensure that our citizens are well informed and prepared to face tough challenges,” she said. “If there is a single child not learning about civics or not being exposed to what they must do as citizens, then all our lives are poorer for that.”

Having just written an entire book on the dangers of political ignorance, I completely agree with Justice O’Connor that this is an important problem. She is performing a useful public service by […]

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Political Ignorance in Britain

Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute has an interesting post analyzing recent survey data on widespread political ignorance in Britain [HT: Nigel Ashford]:

The public is ignorant about politics and lacks even the basic facts that it would need to make sound judgments about political issues. A new poll by Ipsos-MORI shows just how deep this ignorance is. Among other things, the poll found that:

* 29% of people think we spend more on JSA[ed. note: the JSA is Britain’s unemployment benefit program] than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn)
* 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn)
* the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales.
* people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+. In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m, compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.

These are not just little mistakes, they’re absolute howlers.

This ignorance is perfectly rational and understandable. The problem is that these

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Political Ignorance and Partisan Bias Go Down When Survey Respondents Are Rewarded for Correct Answers

Many studies show that there is widespread political ignorance, with large percentages of the public ignorant of fairly basic facts. In addition, voters’ perception of the facts is often heavily influenced by partisan bias. For example, Republicans overestimate the rates of inflation and unemployment when there is a Democratic president, while Democrats have the opposite bias.

An impressive recent study by political scientists John Bullock, Alan Gerber, Seth Hill, and Gregory Huber finds that both ignorance and partisan bias are greatly reduced if survey respondents are given financial rewards for correct answers [HT: Alex Tabarrok]:

In the first experiment, some participants were paid for correct responses to factual questions. The payments reduced observed partisan gaps by about 55%. In the second experiment, we also paid some participants for “don’t know” responses. In this experiment, incentives for correct responses reduced partisan gaps by 60%, and incentives for “don’t know” did so by an additional 20%, yielding partisan gaps that were 80% smaller than those that we observed in the absence of incentives. Taken together, these results provide a lowerbound estimate on the proportion of partisan divergence that arises because of the combination of expressive partisan returns and self-aware ignorance of the truth. Extending our analysis, we found thatpaying people for correct responses sharply reduces the power of factual assessments to predict vote choice.

The authors and Alex Tabarrok suggest that this shows that most partisans don’t really believe the factually inaccurate answers they give in surveys without incentives. The former therefore argue that partisan voters are less biased and less ignorant than conventional surveys suggest. This strikes me as implausible. I doubt that most partisans secretly recognize that the facts are much more opposed to their position than they claim, but continue to strongly believe in it anyway, and refuse […]

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Public Ignorance About How Government Policy Works

NPR reports on an interesting recent article by psychologist Phil Fernbach and his coauthors, which finds that public ignorance about the details of policy has an important impact on voters’ political views:

Should the United States impose unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program? Should we raise the retirement age for Social Security? Should we institute a national flat tax? How about implementing merit-based pay for teachers? Or establishing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions?

Plenty of people have strong opinions about complex policy issues like these. But few people have the detailed knowledge of policy or economics that a solid understanding of the issues seems to require. Where do these opinions come from, if not from careful analysis and deep understanding?

A variety of uncharitable answers come to mind. Perhaps people just adopt the attitudes of their local community or favorite pundits. Perhaps people believe what they want to believe. Or perhaps people think they do understand the issues, at least well enough to support their own opinions.

A recent paper by psychologist Phil Fernbach of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado and his collaborators, published this May in Psychological Science, provides some evidence for this final option: people overestimate how well they understand the mechanics of complex policies, and this sense of understanding helps bolster politically extreme positions…

Here’s how the study worked. People completed an online survey in which they first rated their agreement with several policies, such as sanctions on Iran and a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. They were then asked to estimate how well they felt they understood each policy and received an unexpected request: for two of the policies, they were told to “describe all the details” they knew about the impact of instituting that policy, “going from

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Reflections on John McGinnis’ Accelerating Democracy

Guest blogger John McGinnis’ new book Accelerating Democracy is an outstanding analysis of the ways in which modern technology and social science can improve the quality of decision-making in government and society. It is probably the most important book on that subject in a long time.

Much of John’s thesis is compelling. He is right that modern social science enables us to evaluate the effects of public policy far more accurately than in the past, and that modern technology makes it easier to disseminate the resulting knowledge. I also agree with John’s argument that the technological and social scientific revolutions strengthen the case for political decentralization, enabling lower-level governments to experiment with new types of policies. We can now evaluate such experiments much better than in the past, which increases their value to society. John is especially persuasive in arguing that we should legalize prediction markets, which are an extremely valuable source of information, even if imperfect.

I do, however, have two reservations about John’s conclusions: Because of the problem of rational political ignorance, voters may fail to exploit much of the new information available to them. We will be able to make better use of new data if we make more of our decisions by “voting with our feet” than by voting at the ballot box. And in many cases, such foot voting is best facilitated by limiting state and local government power, as well as that of Washington.

I. How Political Ignorance Reduces the Benefits of New Information.

As John effectively demonstrates, recent technological advances both give us new policy-relevant information and make it easier for the public to access it. The problem is that voters have little incentive to actually learn and make use of the new data. Because any one vote has only an infinitesmal […]

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Foot Voting, Federalism, and Political Freedom

My forthcoming article, “Foot Voting, Federalism, and Political Freedom,” is now available on SSRN. The article is part of a symposium on Federalism and Subsidiarity in the interdisciplinary journal Nomos, which focuses on a different broad issue in political theory every year. Other contributors include a variety of big-name federalism scholars in legal academia and political science: Daniel Weinstock, Loren King, Judith Resnik (Yale), Steve Calabresi (Northwestern), Jenna Bednar, Andreas Follesdal, Vicki Jackson (Harvard), Sotirios Barber, Michael Blake, Ernest Young (Duke), and Jacob Levy (McGill).

Here is the abstract for my article:

The idea of “voting with your feet” has been an important part of debates over federalism for several decades. But foot voting is still underrated as a tool for enhancing political freedom: the ability of the people to choose the political regime under which they wish to live.

Part I of this article explains some key ways in which foot voting in a federal system is often superior to ballot box voting as a method of political choice. A crucial difference between the two is that foot voting enables the individual to make a decision that has a high likelihood of actually affecting the outcome. By contrast, the odds of casting a meaningful ballot box vote are vanishingly small. This reality both enhances the individual’s degree of political freedom and incentivizes him or her to make better-informed and more rational decisions. It is an important consideration in favor of greater political decentralization.

In Part II, I consider some possible limitations of foot voting in a federal system as a tool for enhancing political freedom. These include moving costs, the possibility of “races to the bottom,” and the problem of oppression of minority groups by subnational governments. Each of these sometimes poses a genuine constraint on effective

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Federalism, Immigration, and Interjurisdictional Competition

Temple law professor Peter Spiro has an interesting New York Times column arguing that supporters of immigration should not fear a Supreme Court decision upholding Arizona’s draconian anti-illegal immigrant law, because interjurisdictional competition is likely to take care of the problem. By contrast, he fears that if the Court strikes down the law, the result could be the enactment of much more dangerous federal legislation:

Arizona is one of several states, including Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Indiana, that, frustrated by Congress’s idling on immigration reform, have challenged federal authority by taking it upon themselves to devise draconian policies for undocumented immigrants….

Such laws are misguided at best, mean-spirited and racially tainted at worst. The conventional wisdom among immigration advocates is that immigrant interests will be best served if the Supreme Court makes an example of Arizona’s law by striking it down.

But in the long run, immigrant interests will be better helped if the Supreme Court upholds S.B. 1070….

Undocumented immigrants may themselves be politically powerless, but they have powerful allies. In Alabama and Georgia, dismayed farmers have watched crops rot in the fields for want of immigrant labor. Arizona is estimated to have lost more than $140 million from convention cancellations made in protest.

Even more important is the prospect of lost foreign investment. Caught in the net of Alabama’s law in November was a German Mercedes-Benz executive, who left his passport at home while out for a drive and as a result found himself in a county jail. Mercedes has a plant in Tuscaloosa that employs thousands of Alabamians and adds many hundreds of millions of dollars to the state economy. That embarrassment will make the next foreign company think twice as it scouts out a location for a manufacturing facility in the United States….

In those

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Heather Gerken’s Progressive Defense of Federalism

Yale Law Professor Heather Gerken, a prominent federalism scholar, has an interesting article in Democracy urging her fellow liberals to take a more favorable view of federalism:

Progressives are deeply skeptical of federalism, and with good reason. States’ rights have been invoked to defend some of the most despicable institutions in American history, most notably slavery and Jim Crow. Many think “federalism” is just a code word for letting racists be racist. Progressives also associate federalism—and its less prominent companion, localism, which simply means decentralization within a state—with parochialism and the suppression of dissent. They thus look to national power, particularly the First and Fourteenth Amendments, to protect racial minorities and dissenters from threats posed at the local level.

But it is a mistake to equate federalism’s past with its future. State and local governments have become sites of empowerment for racial minorities and dissenters, the groups that progressives believe have the most to fear from decentralization. In fact, racial minorities and dissenters can wield more electoral power at the local level than they do at the national. And while minorities cannot dictate policy outcomes at the national level, they can rule at the state and local level. Racial minorities and dissenters are using that electoral muscle to protect themselves from marginalization and promote their own agendas.

Much of Gerken’s argument is based on the simple but important point that groups that are relatively weak minorities at the national level often wield greater influence in state and local governments where they are a much higher proportion of the population. In these situations, political decentralization benefits minorities by shifting power to the level of government where they have more political clout.

This will not come as news to students of federalism in countries outside the US. Many federal systems were established […]

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Reassessing Our Federal and State Constitutions

In this recent post, University of Texas constitutional law professor Sanford Levinson calls for a reassessment of our federal and state constitutions:

[I]nstead of being fixated on what the Constitution means, one instead asks whether the Constitution, given a stipulated meaning that may in fact not be at all difficult to discern, is in fact wise. One might call this a “Jeffersonian” approach to the Constitution inasmuch as it invites relentlessly asking whether the Constitution is serving us well. This is, incidentally, an especially important question if we agree on constitutional meaning. Disagreement, after all, suggests the possibility of legitimately interpreting the Constitution to achieve what we might describe as “happy endings.” The situation is decidedly different, however, if we agree on constitutional meaning, but believe that it sets us up less for happy endings than for driving over a cliff….

I have recently published a new book, Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance (Oxford University Press), that focuses almost exclusively on the wisdom of constitutional structures that are, almost without exception, obvious in their meaning. Evidence of this obviousness is that they are rarely brought up in law school classes precisely because there is nothing to “argue about” in the only sense that lawyers and their professors define that term, which involves debates about meaning…

An important theme of the book is that there are fifty-one constitutions within the United States if one takes into account the fifty states. More to the point, these state constitutions can teach valuable lessons of their own. Some of them, as with the national constitution, may offer cautionary lessons inasmuch as they help to explain the dysfunctionalities of given state politics.

I agree with much of what Sandy says in this post. We should not blindly venerate the Constitution. […]

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