Working Paper No. 12-68:
Foot Voting, Federalism, and Political Freedom

Author(s):

Ilya Somin

Date Posted: October 2012

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Abstract:

The idea of “voting with your feet” has long 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 foot voting. But none are as severe a limitation as critics claim.

Part III argues that the case for foot voting under federalism should be expanded “all the way down” to local governments and private communities, and “all the way up” to freer international migration.   It builds on a growing recent literature that advocates granting greater autonomy to local governments relative to regions. Just as foot voting can be expanded all the way down to the local level, there is also a strong case for extending it “all the way up” to the international level. The potential gains from freer international foot voting in some respects dwarf those that can be achieved domestically. For people living under authoritarian regimes, foot voting through international migration is often their only means of exercising any political choice at all.

The utility of foot voting as a tool for exercising political freedom is not the only factor that should be considered in designing federal systems. But it deserves much greater consideration than it has so far received.