An Economist Looks at the Superiority of Free Migration over Democracy in Achieving the Freedoms that Matter

Bob Zadek
24 min readMay 23, 2020


Hindu mythology holds that the whole world rests on the back of a turtle. What does the turtle rest on? According to legend, “it’s turtles all the way down.”

While many are pushing for one-world-government to address new challenges like Coronavirus, there is another approach that can be dubbed “Federalism all the way down.” In other words, why stop at devolving power from Federal Government to the states? The more we decentralize power, the more people can effectively “vote with their feet” and choose which turtle– er, jurisdiction– they will reside in.

This is one of the core premises of Ilya Somin’s vitally important new book Free To Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. Somin, a Law professor at George Mason University and blogger at Reason’s The Volokh Conspiracy, has been on my show several times to discuss his work on eminent domain, rational voter ignorance, and most recently, court packing. These topics deal with the delicate balance of powers between majorities and minorities; the voting public and life-time appointed officials. His latest book looks at the most important balance of powers of all — that which exists among the various jurisdictions where people can chose to live.

He finds that the option to vote with one’s feet is often a more powerful lever than the ballot box for getting the political change that we all want, yet feel powerless to achieve.

Tired of calling your congressman or donating to your favorite politicians to no avail? Why not send a stronger message and withdraw your tax dollars from your city or state if you are so unhappy?

Ilya’s new book also contains a bold defense of more open migration from other countries. He takes objections seriously but answers them one-by-one. The right to move should trump the alleged rights of ethnic groups or individuals to exclude on the basis of national origin.

Ilya joined me this Sunday to discuss his new book and the prospects for Federalism in the aftermath of Coronavirus. Will states that innovate safe ways of re-opening their economy be beneficiaries of an exodus out of states that don’t? Could the U.S. relieve global poverty by opening its doors to more immigrants from countries stricken by looming famines?


Bob Zadek: Welcome to the Bob Zadek show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show on all of radio. We are always the show of ideas, never once the show of attitude. The constitution and the Bill of Rights protect all of us positively against the intrusion of government in our lives. The Bill of Rights grants us what are called “enumerated rights.” Enumerated rights include the freedom of speech, of worship, of assembly, to petition the government, etc. They are positive rights granted to us and the government is forbidden from interfering with them.

In addition to the enumerated rights, there are acknowledged to be by strong Supreme Court precedents and political tradition of unenumerated rights — rights that we clearly have that cannot be taken away from us except in the most extreme circumstances. Among those unenumerated rights not specifically set forth in the Constitution is the right to travel, the right to move from one place to another.

As we will learn this morning, this is a right as important, if not more important than the right to vote. In fact, the right to move is the right to vote. Voting with our feet is a far more meaningful right for all of us to have because it gives us much more control over our political environment than the mere right to vote. To help us understand the importance and the significance of voting with one’s feet, I’m happy to welcome back to the show this morning Ilya Somin. Ilya is a professor of law at George Mason and he is the author of just published Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom.

He has also written Democracy and Political ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. He has also written The Grasping Hand, when he wrote about the infamous case of kilos versus the city of new London which dealt with the eminent domain.

He has co-authored A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: the Volk Conspiracy and the Health Care Case.

Ilya, you’ve been busy writing books. Every time you write a book, I cannot wait to have you share what you have learned with our friends out there, so welcome to the show this morning.

Ilya Somin: Thank you very much for having me.

A More Effective Way to Vote

Bob Zadek: Your book Free to Move sounds like you may have borrowed a phrase from that wonderful Milton Friedman series on PBS called Free to Choose. We sure are glad you wrote the book. What is the concept of foot voting, and why is it so important for our political and economic well being?

Ilya Somin: Foot voting is simply your ability to choose what government policies you want to live under by deciding where you’re going to live or in some cases, what kinds of governments or other services you want to make use of. So you can vote with your feet by deciding where you want to live in a federal system, in a different state or county or city. You can also vote with your feet through international migration.

And indeed, the vast majority of Americans are in the U.S. today because they or their ancestors voted with their feet for the United States over other countries. And finally, I think in many cases you can vote with your feet in the private sector by choosing what private schools you might attend, choosing churches or other civil society organizations and also often choosing to live in a private plan community like a condo association for example, as almost 70 million Americans already do.

Foot voting has two major advantages over conventional ballot box voting, which is usually seen as the main mechanism that we have for political choice. One is that when you vote at the ballot box, you have only a tiny chance of actually determining the outcome. The chance that your vote will make a difference in the results of an election is extremely small, maybe about one in 60 million in a presidential election, for example.

On the other hand, when you vote with your feet, that’s a choice that actually has a high likelihood of making a difference. And in addition, precisely because voting with your feet is much more likely to make a difference on the whole, people are more informed when they vote with their feet than when they vote at the ballot box. Lots of evidence indicates that most voters, when they vote at the ballot box, they know very little about the issues at stake.

They often don’t even know very basic things about how the political system works, such as which officials are responsible for which issues. On the other hand, when they vote with their feet, on the whole, they take that much more seriously. They acquire more information because they know that decision will make a difference. So foot voting is extremely important because it is a chance for you to make a decision that actually matters. And also in most cases, it’s likely to be a better informed decision than when you vote at the ballot box.

If you’re like most people, you probably spent more time seeking out information than the last time you decided what car or what smartphone to buy, then the last time you decided who to vote for president or any other election. That’s because you knew that the decision about the smartphone would actually make a difference, whereas if you flip on the smartphone and go to a news site and see the president, the chance that you can affect who that is infinitesimally small.

Bob Zadek: Your example of moving or selecting a condo association or a condo in which to live and therefore subjecting yourself to the rules of the association was very helpful to me in really getting an intellectual grasp on the issue. There are so many gated communities in America. Once you choose to live there you sign on to some rules that actually limit your freedom. The rules might say you can not have a pink house. You must mow your lawn or else you get a fine or things like that. If those rules sound annoying, well you have no right to complain because you signed on to them.

Everything was voluntary. So by moving into a gated community, you are voluntarily making a decision that overall living with those rules and with the corresponding benefits are worth it. So you have voted with your feet and fact, I dare say that gated communities and condo associations would see their market share decline if their rules were offensive or not to the market, not what the market would expect. So in fact, we do have in America and in the rest of the world, competition, where part of the competition besides physical location is to move into our system because our rules are designed to provide benefit to the group and do not constrict your freedom so much that you will not want to live here.

Voting with your feet is such an everyday event, as you have pointed out, for so many of us. Voting with our feet is especially important in our system of federalism, where we have hopefully a substantial amount of the laws regulating us are passed at the state level under the state police power. So the concept of foot voting goes hand in hand with the concept of federalism. From the pilgrims on down we had voting with our feet in this country’s history.

Regulating Government by Movement

Bob Zadek: The only ones who didn’t vote with their feet were perhaps the native Americans. But I think I read that they crossed the Bering Strait from Russia, or many of them did. So they also voted with their feet, although they didn’t think they were doing that. So tell us about why foot voting is such an interesting concept in regulating by people, the behavior of state governments?

Ilya Somin: Foot voting does have an effect on the behavior of state and local governments in that if a state or locality is very unattractive to people, they will tend to lose population to other jurisdictions and that in turn tends to erode their tax base and incentivizes them to improve their policies. There are examples of this actually happening. I don’t want to say this is the only factor in the civil rights movement by any means, but the South did lose a lot of its black populations to the North and West in the first half of the 20th century. This was part of the impetus for some people in the South beginning to be willing to rethink racial discrimination. Obviously there was also pressure from the federal government on that. In more recent years, high tax states and also states that have very high housing costs have in some cases begun to make reforms in part because they lost population.

I would add that even if states and localities make no reforms whatsoever in response to voting pressures, there is still a lot of value to foot voting in that even if state and local policies are purely random or they’re purely determined by factors that have nothing to do with competition, the opportunity to vote with your feet between jurisdictions with different policies still offers you greater freedom than you would have through ballot box voting alone and enables many more people than would be the case otherwise to live in areas where they liked the policies more. So I think when there is competition, that makes foot voting even more valuable, but even where there is not, it still has tremendous advantages.

Bob Zadek: In our history, we all know the story of the migration to the West as Americans living on the East coast found the quality of life not to their liking and they moved West until they ran out of West. And the West became populated. That is a rich part of our history and that was clearly foot voting. We have the story of the Mormons who left the Northeast because they felt oppressed and they moved all the way to Salt Lake City. That was nothing other than foot voting. There has been and continues to be a well-publicized movement of New Yorkers or others from the highly-taxed Northeast to low tax States like Florida and others.

So foot voting has always been an important part of our history and takes place every day. I would refer our listeners to an article in today’s New York times discussing and analyzing the movement the Coronavirus induced, to Florida and other States. Even the mere fact that people can move has an effect on the behavior of governments. Can you explain how this works and how freedom of movement is enhanced or not by the Constitution?

Ilya Somin: If the government cares about maintaining tax revenue and a labor force and the like, then the possibility that people can move if they don’t like their policies to some extent we can deter them from acting harmful policies in the first place. I don’t want to make too much of this because it isn’t always the case that state and local governments actually raise all or most of their own tax revenue. Sometimes they can get a lot of it from the central government. So that may tamp down these incentives to try to anticipate what foot voters might want. But at the margin it has an effect.

How is this enhanced by the Constitution? Well, at least as interpreted over the last 150 years or so, the Constitution does give people a right to freedom of movement within the United States and that prevents state governments or local governments from either fencing out people or locking their people in, so to speak. That enhances competition between states.

As we’ll discuss a little later, it is unfortunately the case that many state and local governments have made movement more difficult through such policies as restrictive zoning, occupational licensing, and others, but we don’t have what existed during the pre-Civil War period in the U.S. where some states actually actively excluded people and of course, slavery prevented millions of people from being able to move at all and we don’t have the kind of situation that exists in some developing nations where regional governments make migration extremely difficult. Obviously our system could use improvement on that front because we do have some indirect barriers to mobility, which have become a real problem.

Current Barriers to Movement

Bob Zadek: A few examples of how much governments fear foot voting, think of nothing other than the Berlin Wall. The Berlin wall was built in fear of foot voting. Nobody was particularly happy living on the Eastern side of the Berlin wall in East Germany. It was a failed government and a great majority would have loved to have left and that so feared a wall was built to keep them in. Think about the fall of the USSR when the USSR prohibited outward immigration, it barred many of its citizens from leaving the country because it was going to suffer a massive brain drain.

As you have mentioned, states have become somewhat clever, dare I say sinister, at coming up with tools to prevent or punish foot voting. What have you discovered that states have come up with to deny people the right to vote, albeit vote with their feet. What are some of the tools that states have invented to build their own taxation-type Berlin Wall?

Ilya Somin: Most of the problems that we have with state and local policy that impede foot voting are not so much barriers to people leaving, as barriers to people entering.

Just as we have the Berlin Wall internationally, which are an effort to keep people from leaving, we also have, of course, things like the wall that Trump is trying to build on the Southern border or other migration barriers to keep people from entering.

At the state level and local level we often have that as well. There are a variety of policies which function that way.

But the most significant in terms of its effect is restrictive zoning in that in many places which would otherwise be very attractive to migrants, state and local governments have set up barriers to construction of new housing. This is particularly true in large cities in California and also some on the East coast where because it’s extremely expensive and very difficult to build new housing, if more people want to move in, housing prices rapidly increase and there’s little or no ability to build new housing to meet the new demand.

As a result, millions of people are priced out of living in places like the Bay area, Los Angeles, New York city, and elsewhere where otherwise there would be attractive job opportunities for them. That is a major barrier to the foot voting. It also of course, makes all of us poorer because those people end up being trapped in parts of the country where they are less productive. And that not only reduces their incomes but also makes all the rest of us poor because of course, if those people are less productive, that’s a diminution of the entire economy, not just of their own particular incomes.

There are a number of other barriers as well. For example, states have state by state occupational licensing. About 30% of Americans have to have a license to do their jobs. And often the way state occupational licensing works, it’s a kind of protectionist barrier protecting incumbent workers in that profession from competition from others that move in from other States.

What we have is these indirect barriers. Often they weren’t necessarily set up for the specific purpose intentionally of keeping out migrants. There are various complicated political forces involved in their establishment. If it’s not possible for you to find housing in the place that you want to move to, that is almost as effective a barrier as if you’re physically prevented from moving there.

Bob Zadek: Without spending too much time on the issue of occupational licensing, it is a system which harms the public at large. It harms most people to benefit the few because it builds monopolies. It is a guild mentality and it denies most citizens access to the competition among professionals, which means better quality service and lower prices. So it is a system which governments impose upon citizens because of regulatory capture.

Because certain powerful occupational groups are able to persuade the legislature to protect their livelihood and to protect their income. It is a case of what we call what economists call concentrated benefits and diffused costs. The cost of the public is kind of hard to see. It is an unseen but very pervasive cost but nobody feels it day by day. The benefits are given to a few people at the expense of others.

This has changed a little as a result of the virus, when a lot of these rules were rescinded, albeit temporarily, because States didn’t have enough nurses. So the effect of the virus on licensing statutes has been quite interesting during this period of the virus.

Ilya Somin: There have been some states that were hard hit by the virus, like New York, for example, which have temporarily suspended these restrictions on nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals from other States coming in and practicing medicine. To my mind, if doctors from outside of New York or nurses from outside of New York are competent to practice, to deal with this novel, horrible disease that not much is known about, then it seems like they should be competent to practice in New York to deal with a more conventional health problems that the medical profession is more familiar with.

But we’ll see if this leads to any long term reform in this area or not. Some often measures taken during emergencies become permanent even if they’re actually harmful measures. If this becomes permanent, it would actually be a rare case of a beneficial emergency measure that became permanent.

Reassessing International Immigration Policy

Bob Zadek: Immigration has been in the news regretfully far too much, compliments of President Trump’s very aggressive campaign against what seems to be all forms of immigration. You have written in your book and elsewhere passionately about the utter cruelty of what seems to be our present national position on immigration. Immigration is relevant because it is foot voting, not merely moving from New York to Montana, it is moving across the globe to a place where you don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture and are doing so clearly at a great threat to your family and yourself just to start a new life to experience freedom. So tell us what immigration tells us about foot voting.

Ilya Somin: One of the key points of my book is that there’s a fundamental similarity between voting through international migration and foot voting internally within a single country in a federal system. In both cases it provides opportunities for political freedom, also opportunity to enhance your economic situation and your liberty more generally.

So it’s ironic that these two issues are usually discussed separately and the people on the right who tend to like internal footnoting and boast about how taxes are gaining migrants from blue States with great suspicion of international migration and people on the left often have the reverse sort of set of attitudes. So there is this fundamental similarity, but one key difference is that the gains to be had from free international migration are actually much larger than those from internal foot voting because the difference between the best American state and the worst one is small compared to the differences between countries.

Even the worst American state is not nearly as bad as Cuba or Venezuela or Haiti. So a person who moves to the U.S. from Venezuela, from Cuba experiences a massive increase in their freedom in a way that is almost impossible to replicate through any kind of internal migration or really through anything else that we could do for that person. There are vast differences in productivity and institutions between countries which ensure that international migration is freed up and can massively increase the wealth and productivity of the world. We talked earlier about people moving from one state to another where there are greater economic opportunities. Those gaps are much bigger between countries.

Economists estimate that if we had free migration throughout the world, we could approximately double world GDP. That is the world would be about twice as wealthy as it currently is, primarily because there are so many places in the world where people live in situations where no matter how smart they are, how hard working, they just can’t be very productive because of the horrible political institutions in those countries.

If you live in North Korea or in Cuba or in Venezuela or Haiti or other countries with horrible governments there is very little chance that you can be productive. On the other hand, if you get to move to the U.S., to Western Europe or to other countries at better institutions, almost right away you can be two, three, or four times more productive than you were before. If you multiply that out over many millions of people you right away get this massive increase in wealth. That doesn’t even count the fact that people can improve their skills, their knowledge and so forth when they move to a country with better institutions.

It doesn’t count how many people’s opportunities are stifled by the fact that they’re oppressed on the basis of religion or ethnicity or other factories in their home country. If they move to countries which are freer that vote diminishes the oppression but also enables them to be more productive for obvious reasons.

A woman can be more productive on the whole in a Western nation than they can say in Saudi Arabia where women’s opportunities are severely restricted by the government. And there are many other examples like that. So international migration is this tremendous tool for enhancing political choice in political freedom for enhancing freedom more generally and for making the world vastly richer than it would be otherwise.

Bob Zadek: If one believes that humans have an inherent right to try to improve their lot and to move from place to place for whatever reason isn’t it hypocritical for us to prevent others from moving here because it might create competitive pressure here for a job. It is profoundly immoral to acknowledge the freedom of movement in general and yet to deny freedom of movement if the movement into the United States.

Ilya Somin: As you suggest, many people’s attitudes towards immigration are at odds with the sort of more general principles that we apply elsewhere. One of them is that we generally assume that there is a right to freedom of movement and that people can move from California to Texas or vice versa. We object if the government or anybody uses force to prevent them from doing that. Yet when it comes to international migration, our attitudes tend to be different. We tend to assume that people can only move if they have the permission of the government and that permission can be withheld for almost any reason the government wants. In most contexts, we believe that it is wrong for the government to restrict people’s freedom based on their race or ethnicity or who their parents are.

We very much object to the feudal system that existed in medieval Europe where if you were a Lord, you could move around freely and do what you wanted, but most people were serfs so they were only able to move around if their master let them.

On the other hand, our entire immigration system, most of it at least is precisely determined by where you were born or who your parents were. If you were born on the wrong side of a line and a map or you and your parents were not US citizens, then you most likely, you’re not allowed to move to the United States unless you get some kind of special permission.

Much like serfs in the middle ages could only move if they got special permission or if their Lord decided to give them freedom. So it seems like this is an exception both to our principle of freedom of movement and also to our principle that your rights should not be determined by who your parents were, where you were born, or other such morally irrelevant factors that you can’t control. In general, most of the arguments that are used to justify restricting international migration could be used to justify restricting internal migration as well. You mentioned the issue of jobs. If a person moves from West Virginia to the state of Virginia where I live, that person might compete with native-born Virginians for jobs. As for economic consequences, it is not my claim that nobody ever suffers negative economic consequences from international migration or for that matter from internal migration.

There are some people who compete for jobs with recent immigrants. However, if you look at the studies on this, first, the number of people who are negatively affected are vastly outweighed by the number of people who benefit from migration because of all the extra wealth it creates.

Moreover, with recent immigrants, the people they are most likely to compete for jobs with are actually other recent immigrants who came just before them. It’s much less common for them to compete with natives because often immigrants and natives are in somewhat different job markets at least at first. To the extent that you’re concerned about people whose incomes are reduced, there are lots of ways to address that short of banning migrants. I discussed several of those strategies in the book, but one obvious one is that you could simply impose a surtax on immigrant wages and use the money to subsidize whatever native workers you think are being short changed.

I don’t claim this policy is optimal, but it is certainly vastly better for both immigrants and natives than just categorically excluding people. Because immigration creates so much new wealth and productivity, for the vast majority of both immigrants and natives, they will be better off and some of that wealth, if necessary, can be tapped to address those people who are exceptions to that general principle. I would also add again that if you believe that people do not have a right to be protected from competition for jobs with other natives, it’s not clear why there is a right to be protected from competition for jobs by immigrants. If somebody from West Virginia can come in and compete with me for a job, it’s not clear why it should be different if it’s someone from Cuba or from Mexico.

The Overall Positive Benefit of Competition

Bob Zadek: The word competition often has a negative connotation and competition is wonderful. Competition is two or more people competing with each other for the ability to give me exactly what I want at a lower price. The competition is who can better satisfy my needs. Don’t all of us want all the competition in the world? We want people falling over each other to give us what we want at the lowest possible price. Thank heaven for competition. The more the better.

On a human rights level, you comment in your book that our country was founded on the principle that there can be no inherited rights, no inherited royalty, no class created by birth. And yet Americans have created that with immigration policy.

Ilya Somin: Domestically in the U S and in other liberal democracies, we have rejected the feudal system and the system of aristocracy where people’s freedom and their right to move around was dependent on who their parents were. But internationally we have more or less replicated that system in that a huge part of the world’s population are effectively trapped under horrible government because they are not allowed to leave or at least not allowed to leave for anywhere which is likely to be any significant. We have sort of an international system of feudalism, if you will, even though we reject that system internally within a country.

I do want to comment on the issue of competition. The idea in a lot of people’s heads implicitly is that competition is a zero game.

If somebody comes in and I lose my job to them, there is a fixed number of jobs and if they gain that, I must lose. But in reality, the economy does not work that way. There’s not a fixed number of jobs. Rather, the number of jobs depends on the demand for goods, innovation and other factors. The history of the U.S. and actually of other countries shows as well to increase the number of people can increase the total wealth and productivity and therefore everybody, or at least almost everybody can gain, if you just isolate the one effect of somebody competing with me for a job. It might be better for me if he didn’t compete with me for that job, but overall, I still benefit from the system of competition because people compete to provide me services and competition leads to innovation and improvements in productivity.

So for me it might be best if everybody who sells me goods and services had to compete, but I didn’t have to compete. Me having to compete with people who might seek out jobs that I want is a small price to pay for an overall system where there’s competition and therefore vastly greater productivity. So I think to the extent that we can get people to stop thinking of the economy as a zero sum game, that might improve their understanding, both of the situation with immigration but also of other aspects of the economy and other aspects of economic policy.

We don’t have to be each other’s enemies where we don’t have to fear each other, rather we can potentially all become more productive and wealthier together. Even though in particular cases, obviously you might be competing with somebody for a job.

Bob Zadek: Every industrial innovation, the combine replacing the plow, the plow repaste replacing the hoe. With every innovation there were people who lost their job. Does anybody out there think we have to criminalize innovation lest somebody lose their job? Well, obviously not, because the collective benefit is overwhelming. So therefore you cannot focus on the individual job which is lost. Nobody owns a job. Nobody owns the right to employment. You only are entitled to a job if the person you are working for has decided that you are the best person at the lowest price to perform a function.

Future Directions in Movement Due to Coronavirus

Bob Zadek: Now Ilya, there have been at the state level lots of movement of people from state to state because of the virus. We can’t tell if it’s temporary or permanent. It looks like fewer people will be working in downtown offices. That’s a movement that’s just beginning. Once you work from home, you don’t have to live near where you work. Therefore, there’s no reason to live in a crowded apartment in New York city.

You can live anywhere and do the same job. I speculated that whether that will result in a permanent movement of humans from crowded downtown cities to more comfortable living environments somewhere else in the country, whether that will result in a loss of economic power, a loss of political power, a dispersion of power throughout the country and away from the cities. I got excited about that. You kind of calm me down a bit. What is your view on this?

Ilya Somin: We don’t really know yet what will be the long term effects of the coronavirus crisis. I partly agree with you that it is likely that there are some jobs that can be done as well or almost as well from home as they can be from an office in a big city. And maybe the crisis will accelerate our recognition of those jobs. On the other hand, there’s a lot of evidence that many people can be more productive if they live in areas where there’s lots of other people either in the same industry or in closely related industries. There are what economists call agglomerations like Silicon Valley for example. Many people in the high tech industry can be more productive if they live there than if they are in the middle of rural Montana or somewhere else.

There’s a lot of situations where face to face interaction with other people in the same job improves your productivity, makes you happier, and so forth. I think this isn’t true of every industry, certainly, and maybe over time technology can reduce the need for it. But overall, we’re still in a situation where the bigger problem is barriers like zoning where they can’t take advantage of agglomeration more. I am skeptical that the real problem is that too many people are living in big cities or in agglomeration areas.

My concern is that too few people have access to some of those places. Now obviously if the virus is a problem that will be here for many years, if we don’t get a vaccine or other ways to mitigate it, then that’s a downside to living in dense urban areas that is relatively new and therefore might be an additional reason for people not to do it.

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Bob Zadek • host of The Bob Zadek Show on 860AM – The Answer.