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 of “good-paying (often union) jobs… That scenario would be tough to replicate today.” However, as Sullivan recognizes, poor people and others are right now foot voting in favor of southern and southwestern states, in part because of the greater availability of job opportunities today. In absolute terms, the jobs they are getting are much better-paying than those which most black migrants to the north could get 50-100 years ago.

Finally, Sullivan notes that there are still major disagreements between liberals and libertarians over the appropriate extent of government redistribution to the poor. This is undoubtedly true. I don’t categorically reject all such redistribution, but I certainly favor much less of it than most liberals do. But the point of my book and other work on political ignorance and foot voting (which prompted Sullivan’s initial post) is not to resolve all disagreements between libertarians and the left, but to explain how widespread political ignorance strengthens the case for political decentralization and limits on government power. A reader who agrees with my arguments will not necessarily become as libertarian as I am. But he or she should favor greater decentralization and tighter constraints on government than he would otherwise.

UPDATE: One last small point: Sullivan describes me as “The Cato Institute’s Ilya Somin.” Although I am an adjunct scholar at Cato (an unpaid position), I actually work for George Mason University.

UPDATE #2: Co-blogger David Bernstein adds some relevant points on the Great Migration here. Among others, he notes that unions and pro-union legislation often harmed migrating black workers more than it benefited them.

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