February 9, 2021 Reading Time: 6 minutes

If Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy met Bryan Caplan’s Open Borders, the result would be Ilya Somin’s great book from last year: Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. In a dense 186-page book Somin does what these two great scholars did separately over hundreds of pages: undermining voting as the most effectful participation in civic life and showing that arguments against foreigners coming to our shores don’t hold water. 

The brilliance of Free to Move is to connect these two arguments. Ballot voting is unsatisfactory for all the reasons that foot voting is not: an individual has no ability to impact the outcome of, and therefore has no reason to learn about, the political issues involved. A foot voter has almost full ability to affect the outcome of his or her decisions, and thus all the reasons in the world to investigate them. Having accountable decisions made at the level where their consequences are most urgently felt – the individual – aligns political life with personal values in a way no amount of democratic participation could. 

The story of Somin’s previous book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, is fruitfully weaved into a compelling take on migration. It’s not so much the economic argument that international migration from poor countries to well-off countries enriches the world – which Somin spends some time exploring – but that in doing so people who vote with their feet have a larger say over their own life than they could have by ballot-voting. Individual freedom to live one’s life as one sees fit is thereby advanced; fixing what you think is wrong with your country is more easily done by leaving than by voting. 

In terms of Albert Hirschman’s classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Somin makes the case that Exit is a more powerful tool than Voice.  

One thing that often puzzles economists is why people would vote at all considering that you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to affect the outcome of an election. Most voters can’t distinguish one candidate from another, don’t know what the topics discussed mean, don’t know which party controls which branch of government, and are in no position to assess what the future outcome of proposed policies are likely to be. That doesn’t make for a particularly effective decision-making process and Somin painstakingly takes apart proposals to fix them: the scale and scope of modern government is too large for anyone to grasp in its entirety, making effective and informed voting an impossibility; “retrospective voting” doesn’t work as the electorate would just punish or reward politicians for things they had no influence over. 

Deliberative solutions like Citizens’ Councils just beg the question and make even higher cognitive and informational demands on an otherwise ignorance populace – they also afford too much powers to insiders to set agendas and control information flows: “Here, as elsewhere, increasing the political influence of one part of the population reduces the influence of others.”

Foot-voting lets us escape from the inherent zero-sum nature of politics. If somebody gets more power in a democracy – through franchise exclusions, non-equal voting or more palpably oligarchies and dictatorship – someone else gets less. More people ballot-voting means that my individual voice becomes less important. Not so with foot-voting: for some to hop jurisdictional borders does not “reduce the ability of others to participate in the formation of policy.” 

In the latter half of the book Somin shows that foot voting does a better job than ballot-voting in improving people’s lives, and, more importantly, that the common arguments wielded against (im)migration don’t hold water. We have plenty of problems with ballot-voting, and the worse those problems are the better foot voting looks. As such there’s plenty to annoy ideologues on both the left and the right, which elegantly lets Somin claim the informed and enlightened middle ground – while still advancing a radical idea. 

The private sector angle, briefly touched upon on occasion, is a little weird and under-analyzed. Sure, having private institutions like homeowners’ associations, membership clubs, or private security guards let us opt into rules and policies that we deem most beneficial to us. It lets us take matters into our own hands instead of relying on fickle politicians every other year. But, as Somin freely admits it’s not clear that these are political choices. Then again, plenty of people ballot-vote on narrow personal, financial, or self-identity grounds that aren’t clearly political either. Here Somin effectively takes apart the false dichotomy between economic migrants and refugees (‘political’ migrants): what seems like economic choices are “usually at least in significant part ‘political.’”

The essence of foot voting, like private-sector decisions, is that you decide. In my mind, this selection point is the strongest indication that foot-voting outperforms ballot-voting: with enough ranges of options available for potential movers, they can choose a package that best suits them. An obvious counterargument is that this doesn’t communicate any message; just because Californians are leaving for Texas in the hundreds of thousands, we don’t know why they prefer Texas – and thus, other jurisdictions don’t know which of their own levers to pull to more align themselves with what people want. 

That’s right, but an equally damaging problem in regular ballot-voting. Tons of people voted for Trump, both in 2016 and 2020, but that didn’t tell us what they wanted or why they objected to rival candidates. Communicative voting is very noisy and seriously limited. Foot-voting excels in this respect as it doesn’t require effective communication to work:

“Even if no one else knows why any given set of foot voters acted as they did, they themselves presumably know, and still were able to choose which policies they wish to live under. […] I can enjoy the benefits of [my favored] policies even if no one else knows that was my motivation.”

Leaving people to choose for themselves allows them to opt out of systems that force majoritarian rule on them. Somin makes a great case for migration as a life-changing force for the people able to do it, not least his own parents leaving the Soviet Union. He suggests that of all plausible ways of alleviating suffering and misery, allowing people to vote with their feet might be the best one. If you’re concerned with the morals, practices, and values of the new arrivals so much so that you think they’ll negatively alter the political balance of your state or country, Somin suggests a number of “keyhole solutions” – policies that prevent or address such concerns without barring the foot voters from showing up: directed taxes to make up for perceived costs or delayed and restricted political influence. 

Changing Societies

The simplest and most elegant counterargument against objections to immigration changing the culture of a society comes in the format of a classic “compared to what?” Every generation changes its society but nobody really thinks that’s a big deal (elders complain about the “decadence” of youth?). Even so, Somin kicks in the open door: “Few argue that their elders have a right to use force to prevent [change], much less expel anyone who fails to conform to the previously dominant cultural patterns.”

Here Somin finds a club to repeatedly wield against detractors on both the pro-democracy Left and the anti-immigrant Right. To uphold restrictions on foreign immigrants one must resort to arguments that equally well apply to domestic migrants – policies that nobody favors: 

“Those who accept this type of reasoning [restricting migration because of crime, burdens of welfare state or cultural change] as a justification for immigration restrictions but reject it as a justification for constraints on internal migration have a deep contradiction in their positions, one that in most situations cannot be resolved without applying the same standards to both types of migration.”

A common argument in immigration debates is that a country is like a membership club, a house us insiders own and govern collectively for the benefit of us. Thus, just like I can restrict access to my house to outsiders, a population can restrict access to their country. The problem with the analogy is that the sort of people most likely to invoke it would never allow handing over to the government similar club-based rights of what one can do in their own homes. Libertarians hold government rights tighter than private rights, and so 

“Consistent libertarians should be the last to accept any argument implying that governments should have the same sort of authority over their territory as private property owners have over their houses or clubs.”

Another angle of the same argument is the fear that foreigners don’t share liberal principles. But plenty of natives don’t either and we don’t (yet?) go around expelling them from the country. Besides, writes Somin, “Illiberal natives pose a more serious threat to liberal institutions than recent immigrants do,” as they already have political power. 

“Throughout history,“ Somin concludes, “emigration has been a tremendous boon to people forced to live under corrupt, backward, or oppressive regimes.” Before we restrict their option to leave by closing them out from our societies and economies, Somin concludes, we should ask ourselves three things: first, perhaps the problems we associate with immigration are overstated. Second, we have keyhole solutions available that would address the few problems that may survive such an investigation. Third, migration creates enormous wealth; instead of preventing people from arriving we could tap some of that wealth to offset financial or otherwise perceived harm. 

While not too preachy or moralistic, Somin dispassionately and in a very nuanced way takes apart arguments against his case. Free to Move is an exercise in careful reasoning, not policy prescription, yet Somin still pushes his readers a little further away from relying on ballot voting for improving the world and a little closer to letting foot voting rule. 

However you slice it, voting with your feet is more impactful, more likely to favorably change an outcome, and delivers the goodies to the person who wants them the most. Allowing more and better options for foot-voting doesn’t solve all or even major problems our societies face, but those are topics much outside the scope of Somin’s narrow focus. 

Instead, he delivers a simple and justifiable point: Foot voting isn’t ideal, but it often performs better than the ballot-voting alternative.

Joakim Book

Joakim Book

Joakim Book is a writer, researcher and editor on all things money, finance and financial history. He holds a masters degree from the University of Oxford and has been a visiting scholar at the American Institute for Economic Research in 2018 and 2019.

His work has been featured in the Financial Times, FT Alphaville, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Svenska Dagbladet, Zero Hedge, The Property Chronicle and many other outlets. He is a regular contributor and co-founder of the Swedish liberty site Cospaia.se, and a frequent writer at CapXNotesOnLiberty, and HumanProgress.org.

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