Balkinization  

Monday, October 07, 2013

Foot Voting vs. Ballot Box Voting

Ilya Somin

If the problem of political ignorance is a tougher nut to crack than conventional wisdom supposes, what can be done about it? Sadly, I don't think there is any definitive solution available. But we can significantly mitigate the problem by making more of our decisions by "voting with our feet" and fewer at the ballot box.

I. Informational Advantages of Foot Voting

In chapter 5 of my book, I explain why two kinds of foot voting have important informational advantages over ballot box voting.  The first is when we vote with our feet in the private sector, by choosing which products to buy or which civil society organizations to join. The other is choosing what state or local government to live under in a federal system - a decision often influenced by the quality of those jurisdictions' public policy.

If you are like most people, you probably spent more time and effort acquiring information the last time you decided which car or TV to buy than the last time you decided who to support for president or governor. Is that because the presidency is less important than your TV, or deals with less complicated issues? Unlikely. It's because when people choose a TV, they intuitively realize that the decision is likely to make a difference. By contrast, when you vote for a presidential candidate, the chance that your decision will affect the outcome is infinitesmally small.

The key difference between foot voting and ballot box voting is that foot voters don't have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. To the contrary, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information. They also have much better incentives to objectively evaluate what they do learn. Unlike "political fans" who can afford to be "rationally irrational" about political information, foot voters know they will pay a real price if they do a poor job of evaluating the information they get.

Consider how people react to those who argue with them about politics and point out flaws in their positions. In most cases, they react with anger or frustration. Rarely will they thank you for helping them to see the truth. It's no accident that social norms frown on arguing about politics and religion in mixed company. By contrast, people are, on average, much more open-minded if you point out to them that they're missing out on a deal in the marketplace. That's because, for most people, having their political views attacked is just psychological pain with little prospect of gain. But information that improves your foot voting decisions is much more useful, and therefore people are more willing to put up with criticism of their views on such matters.

That doesn't mean that foot voters are always well-informed or perfectly unbiased in their evaluation of information. Far from it. But, on average, they do a much better job than ballot box voters do. In the book, I discuss some dramatic examples of foot voters acquiring and effectively using information even under highly adverse conditions. For example, millions of poorly educated and sometimes illiterate African-Americans in the early 20th century Jim Crow South managed to figure out that conditions were relatively less oppressive in the North (and also in some parts of the South compared to others) and migrated accordingly. This, despite the fact that southern state governments deliberately tried to keep them ignorant by impeding the flow of information about job opportunities in the North. Foot voting under federalism did not solve all the problems of oppressed African-Americans in the Jim Crow era. Perhaps nothing could in a society as racist as the early 20th century US. But it did significantly improve their situation compared to what it would have been otherwise. And it is an important example of how foot voters can effectively acquire and make use of information even under highly unfavorable conditions.

In more recent times, some 70 percent of  the public were unaware of the massive Bush Medicare prescription drug plan when it passed in 2003. But, despite the complex nature of the options the plan offered to senior citizens, studies show that most of those eligible for benefits made well-informed decisions about which of several options to choose. I am no fan of that Bush policy; but it is an example of how  people presented with foot voting decisions about a complex  issue like health care do a much better job of seeking out relevant information than those acting as ballot box voters in that same field.

II. Implications for the Role of Government

The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government. The more decentralized government is, the more issues can be decided through foot voting. It is much easier to vote with your feet against a local government than a state government (except, perhaps, a very small state), and much easier  to do it against a state than against the federal government.

It is also usually much easier to foot vote in the private sector than the public. A given region is likely to have far more private planned communities and other private sector organizations than local governments. Choosing between the former usually requires far less in the way of moving costs than choosing between the latter.

 Foot voting has significant downsides as well as upsides. In Chapter 5 of the book and in  Part II of this article, I cover several standard objections to foot voting, such as the problem of moving costs, the danger of  "races to the bottom," and the likelihood that political decentralization might harm unpopular racial and ethnic minorities. Each of these concerns is sometimes a genuine problem. But I contend that each one is a less severe challenge than commonly believed. For example, moving costs can be reduced by decentralizing to lower levels of government or to the private sector, and are in any case declining thanks to modern technology.

Political ignorance is, of course, far from the only factor that must be considered in deciding the appropriate size, scope, and centralization of government. For example, some large-scale issues are simply too big to be effectively addressed by lower-level governments. Global warming is a good example. Ultimately, Democracy and Political Ignorance does not provide anything like a complete theory of the appropriate role of government in society. But it does suggest that the informational advantages of foot voting should lead us to limit and decentralize government  more than we would otherwise. Even if you read the book and agree with every one of its arguments, you could still rationally support a larger and more centralized government than I would. But it should be smaller and more decentralized than the government you would choose in a world where political ignorance is not a serious problem.

UPDATE: As with one of my previous posts in this series. I initially neglected to set the system to allow comments (I am used to the system at the Volokh Conspiracy, where allowing comments is the default setting). I apologize for the mistake, which has now been fixed. 



Comments:

I would imagine most people spend no more time than it takes to walk around the store and, at the most, ask a salesperson a question or two to buy a television.

I think Mr. Somin makes some good points about African-Americans 'voting with their feet' in the face of Jim Crow but 1. it seems to undercut his overall emphasis on political ignorance (since he concedes most of those involved probably would not be 'informed' in the sense he has been using it) and 2. it seems a tough hill to climb (though credit to him for choosing what would have been an obvious counterexample) as Jim Crow seems to be the quintessential case of where a federal, one sized fits all approach worked far better than a 'state's right's' approach.
 

Perhaps Mr. Somin would argue that voting with one 's feet would have ultimately caused the states to dismantle their discriminatory practices. But neither slavery nor Jim Crow made exit very easy.
 

It's hard to explain why the Great Migration only began ca. 1910, though the oppression of blacks had been pretty constant since 1865. Well, before that too, but slavery.

It's even harder to explain why the vast majority of that "foot voting" didn't take place until 1940-70, despite all the oppression until that time. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Migration_(African_American)

It's hard to explain, that is, unless you recognize that blacks didn't "vote with their feet" *until they had jobs available in the North*.

People move for *jobs*, not because they're socially or politically oppressed. Which rather undermines Prof. Somin's argument.
 

Do "foot voters" make a cost/benefit analysis in their decisions? Surely young professionals who gentrify once poor neighborhoods in foot voting make such an analysis. Also wealthy individuals facing potential lawsuits who engage in foot voting to FL for the benefit of FL's protective bankruptcy laws (attributable to federalism principles) make such an analysis. Likewise wealthy individuals who engage in foot voting to states with low income and estate tax rates make such an analysis. Add to this wealthy individuals who gather in gated communities for the obvious reasons, including that the uninformed poor cannot foot vote for financial reasons into that gated community.

As for the Great Migration, those foot voters foot voted for survival due to government policies of long standing, limited perhaps to "back of the envelope" cost/benefit analysis - "Can I get a job and a place to live that I can afford?". Likewise the Okies of the Dust Bowl days. Their survival is a tad different from the foot voters in the preceding paragraph.

Perhaps Ilya could provide us with his personal foot voting beginning with his coming to America to contrast with foot voters described in the preceding paragraph.

Foot voting can be quite expensive such that those with wealth and influence can do so more readily and effectively than many without such means who may be trapped by financial circumstances. I was born in 1930 and recall stories from my childhood of families who moved quite frequently from neighborhood to neighborhood, sort of an involuntary foot voting to avoid rent and other bills. Inequality in wealth, income and otherwise has great bearing foot voting.


 

It is also usually much easier to foot vote in the private sector than the public. A given region is likely to have far more private planned communities and other private sector organizations than local governments. Choosing between the former usually requires far less in the way of moving costs than choosing between the latter.

I haven't found this to be the case uniformly. Do you not like the Mountain View city government? You have a choice of another dozen or so within a 30-minute drive. How many grocery chains do you have a choice of? I believe four. And telecommunications companies? How easy is to to avoid Microsoft, if you really don't want to use their products. To avoid Google's web tracking? All of these are much harder to foot-vote away from than the city of Mountain View is.
 

Mr Somin also seems to studiously ignore all the research that has been done on the level of government, the prevalence of corrupt practices and crony capitalism.

If in fact "vote with your feet" was driven by political factors, then the "Free State" and "Free Town" projects would not have been such utter failures. Libertarians, had opted NOT to vote with their feet even when encouraged to do so

And when they tried this at the local town level, the local town acted to prevent the changes from happening

http://wbro.oxfordjournals.org/content/10/2/201.short

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167268196000224

http://translate.google.com/?hl=en&lr=&pg=PA161&dq=the+problem+of+decentralization+corruption&ots=j8c8wEY2Ah&sig=dQAHM95zaW_qz-zlGwQN95P1aHM&q=the+problem+of+decentralization+corruption&sa=N&tab=pT
 

Mark:

"People move for *jobs*, not because they're socially or politically oppressed. Which rather undermines Prof. Somin's argument."

You will generally find freedom and economic opportunity (and the reverse) in the same places.

I am surprised that Professor Somin did not note the massive migration from the unionized progressive states to the heartland states over the past two generations which made the African American Great Migration look like a comparative trickle. The former migration is likely the greatest peacetime movement of people within a nation in history.
 

If our SALADISTA says so:

"The former migration is likely the greatest peacetime movement of people within a nation in history."

he must have the proof in his green bag; otherwise he wouldn't say so, would he?
 

Shag:

25 House seats of roughly 600,000 apiece or about 15 million Americans shifted to the sunbelt states from 1970 -2010. This does not count the migration into the mountain west and great plains.

If you can find another peaceful migration of 15+ million within a nation in world history, I would love to see it.
 

Perhaps our SALADISTA is subtly suggesting that the peaceful migration he describes might have been a reaction to the Great Migration? The housing bubble may have subsidized this migration. And let's not discount the births that took place there increasing the numbers our SALADISTA pulled out of who knows where. And of course there would have to be factored in the population increases from 1970-2010. I think a tad more analysis is required before our SALADISTA self-publishes what may be a new book on the largest peacetime migration in world history.
 

Shag:

"Perhaps our SALADISTA is subtly suggesting that the peaceful migration he describes might have been a reaction to the Great Migration?"

Actually, millions of African Americans joined the migration to the sunbelt because cities like Atlanta offered more opportunity than failing blue cities like Detroit.

"The housing bubble may have subsidized this migration."

The government directed and subsidized subprime home mortgage driven housing price bubble started in 1997 and these garbage mortgages were available in all 50 states.

"And let's not discount the births that took place there increasing the numbers our SALADISTA pulled out of who knows where."

This would take a closer analysis of the census data than I have the time or inclination to make.

Among native Americans, people of faith tend to have more children than the secular, which would suggest that natives of the Bible Belt might have had more children during this period than more secular places like NYC.

On the other hand, foreign immigrants have a markedly higher birth rate than native Americans and those immigrants have been flowing into progressive blue states in numbers sufficient to replace all the departing natives.

I have no idea how those demographics would offset, but the net of the two do not begin to account for a shift of 15+ million Americans.


 

Shag, don't you know that retirees migrate to the sun belt for the job opportunities?
 

Native Americans? I'm pretty sure their "migrations" were at the business end of a gun.
 

BB:

Anyone born in American is a native American. I do not incorrectly limit that term to Indians, who are just another group of immigrants.
 

"The former migration is likely the greatest peacetime movement of people within a nation in history."

Bart, how would it compare with what it traditionally called the age of 'westward expansion' in the United States. The source below suggest for example that 'In 1800, less than 7% lived in the West. By 1900 this number increased to roughly 60%'

http://guillaume-vandenbroucke.net/West_Web.pdf
 

Mr. W:

America's westward expansion was definitely large, but many to most of these migrants were foreign immigrants and I do not believe that 15 million native Americans moved from east to west in an equivalent time period to the rustbelt to sunbelt migration.
 

People move for *jobs*, not because they're socially or politically oppressed. Which rather undermines Prof. Somin's argument.

Even if we assume it is correct about black migration in the US, this statement is grossly overbroad and intellectually sloppy. Plenty of people vote with their feet despite no good economic prospects. You can find them at refugee camps all over the world.

I'm not really a big fan of Ilya's "vote with their feet" argument, precisely because I think it only occurs in the face of very severe oppression. So it's not much of a safety valve. But it does, in fact, occur, and the power of refugee flows can be seen in the fact that oppressive regimes often go to great lengths to ensure that people are forced to stay. Ilya's exprience coming from the former Soviet Union is certainly relevant in this regard.
 

I am surprised that Professor Somin did not note the massive migration from the unionized progressive states to the heartland states over the past two generations which made the African American Great Migration look like a comparative trickle. The former migration is likely the greatest peacetime movement of people within a nation in history.

On the other hand, this is even more sloppy than Mark's comment.

Simply put, how many people came to California from the rest of the country during the post-war period when we basically epitomized big government liberalism?

What you might be able to say is that there's been a great SORTING. People who believe that a sky fairy is going to let them live forever and that clean water regulations are the thin edge of tyranny end up in Colorado with Bart; people who embrace our multicultural future and believe in the liberation of women and gays end up in California with me.

But I don't think that's what Ilya means by voting with your feet-- he's talking about avoiding serious governmental oppression, not moving to some place where you can be around people who are like you.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

BD: I am surprised that Professor Somin did not note the massive migration from the unionized progressive states to the heartland states over the past two generations which made the African American Great Migration look like a comparative trickle. The former migration is likely the greatest peacetime movement of people within a nation in history.

Dilan: On the other hand, this is even more sloppy than Mark's comment. Simply put, how many people came to California from the rest of the country during the post-war period when we basically epitomized big government liberalism?


California had a great business environment after WWII, but progressive policies progressively poisoned that environment until CA natives joined the migration to the heartland states over 20 years ago. The mountain west and Texas is filled with refugees from your CA. http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_71.htm#.UlRGahYgN8s
 

A response to our SALADISTA's challenge:

"If you can find another peaceful migration of 15+ million within a nation in world history, I would love to see it. "

might be for our SALADISTA to contact a travel agent and take a slow boat to China.
 

Bart:

California had its biggest government in the 1950's and 1960's. Gigantic freeway projects, a massive expansion of the state university systems, generous welfare programs.

And during that period, not only did we get a net migration, but it was huge. The migration out you are describing (which actually doesn't exist unless you only talk about white people-- we are still a growing state when ethnic minorities and immigrants are counted) only occurred after Proposition 13 and Reagan's governorship, when our government started to contract.

It is completely inconsistent with your argument.
 

Shag:

Amerika, love it or leave it?

I think not.

I prefer working as part of a peaceful revolution to reestablish America as the Land of the Free.
 

Blankshot, you're a delusional lunatic.
 

Dilan: California had its biggest government in the 1950's and 1960's. Gigantic freeway projects, a massive expansion of the state university systems, generous welfare programs.

Infrastructure helped the business environment.

Welfare only harms the business environment when it translates into progressively punitive taxes.

Your insane taxes did not take off until the 1970s. http://cacs.org/visualization/1552

Ditto your insane regulations.

The IT revolution in the 80s delayed CA's decline later than say that of MI, but progressivism eventually cripples even the most vibrant economy.
 

"Plenty of people vote with their feet despite no good economic prospects. You can find them at refugee camps all over the world."

Fair enough. At some level of oppression, people will leave. But based on the experience of this country, the level of oppression would have to exceed that of the post-War South. I don't think Prof. Somin is limiting himself to that point.
 

Gee whiz, I thought our SALADISTA was serious when he said he would love to see " ... another peaceful migration of 15+ million within a nation in world history ... " I figured a slow boat to China would be filled with the joys of Peking Duck, egg rols, etc. Really, I do not wish to wish our SALADISTA on China as he just might stir things up with China demanding that American debt it holds be paid. [Note: I'm assuming our SALADISTA could get a visa.]
 

It appears that Massachusetts has the 5th highest median income. I figured that we would be pretty close to last. We probably need to elect more Republicans if we want to compete with red states like Mississippi or West Virginia.
 

Your insane taxes did not take off until the 1970s. http://cacs.org/visualization/1552

Ditto your insane regulations.


Bart just cited a tax graph that STARTS in 1970 to supposedly prove that California didn't have high taxes or strict regulations prior to that time.

This speaks for itself.
 

That graph does not even show that tax rates have increased in CA since 1970. It only shows that tax revenue has increased. Guess what it shows if you look at taxes per $100 income adjusted for inflation?
 

Here's a link to a NYTimes Asia Pacific report "China's Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities":

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/world/asia/chinas-great-uprooting-moving-250-million-into-cities.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0


 

My parents moved several times when they were poor for better economic opportunities. Each time things got a bit better and eventually they settled down where they did fairly well.

Freedom to move is often nothing to lose.


 

This article reminds me of a question that I have had regarding Detroit. Would the outcome have been different in Detroit if the franchise were limited to property owners? Renters can leave the town as soon as the lease expires property owners have more skin in the game. It seems to me that if only property owners voted in municipal elections, there would be less susceptibility to incurring long term unfunded pension debt or issuing debt to pay for boondoggle stadiums.
 

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