Monday, June 08, 2020

Free to Move: An Interview with Ilya Somin, Part One


I recently spoke with Ilya Somin (George Mason Law School) about his new book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2020).

This is part one of a two-part interview. Part Two will appear tomorrow.

JB: Your book argues for the freedom of migration both within countries and across borders. You argue that foot voting can create many beneficial effects, and that it also promotes political freedom.

Among the key moves in your book are the twin concepts of political freedom and decisive choice. First, you argue that foot voting is superior to other forms of political freedom-- including the rights to vote, to petition, protest and speak-- because foot voting allows people to make a individually decisive choice, and because it increases the chances that people's decisions will be well-informed. You define a "decisive choice" in terms of how likely it is to affect outcomes for a particular individual. Could you explain how you came to these ideas, and why they are important for us today?

Ilya Somin: Actually, neither the idea of political freedom nor the idea of a decisive choice are my original inventions. At least since John Locke and others back in the seventeenth century, a variety of thinkers in the liberal political tradition have argued that citizens should be able to choose the political system they wish to live under, and that the legitimacy of  government power depends on their consent.

Similarly, scholars have long recognized that there is an important difference between decision-making processes – such as ballot-box voting – where each individual’s choice has little or no chance of making a difference to the outcome, and ones where there it has a high probability of having an impact – as when people “vote with their feet.” That distinction underpins the economic theory of public goods. It is also at the heart of the theory of rational voter ignorance, which was a major focus of one of my previous books, Democracy and Political Ignorance.

The contribution I tried to make in Free to Move is to bring these two ideas together, and explain how they provide a strong case for empowering people to vote with their feet in a wide range of settings.

 When, as in most elections, an individual vote has only a 1 in 1 million or even smaller chance of making a difference to the outcome, it’s hard to argue that the individual voter has much, if any, meaningful political freedom. If you have only a 1 in million chance of being able to decide what opinions you are allowed to express, or a 1 in 1 million chance of determining what, if any, religion you wish to practice, we would say you lack meaningful freedom of speech and religious freedom. The same point applies, as I see it, to political freedom.

By contrast, when you can vote with your feet in a federal system, or in the private sector, or through international migration, you are making a decision that has a high probability of making a real difference. It’s not perfect, by any means; I discuss a variety of limitations (and how to address them) in the book! But it’s a lot more empowering than ballot-box voting is.

JB: You've mentioned your earlier book, Democracy and Political Ignorance. I was interested in how your view that political ignorance is a pervasive problem in modern democracies helped influence your arguments in this book. One obvious connection between this book and the last one is libertarianism: because the public doesn't know much about politics, concentrated interest groups will pass unwise legislation that undermines freedom. Foot voting is a way to escape unwise laws that impinge on personal freedom. Are there other connections between political ignorance and foot voting?

Ilya Somin: The work I did for that earlier book was a natural precursor to some aspects of my new one.
Libertarianism is a common thread between the two books in several respects. Both express skepticism about conventional democratic government, and both argue for limiting government power in a number of ways. I certainly can’t deny that this is part of what attracted me, a libertarian, to these topics.

But it’s worth emphasizing that neither relies on any specifically libertarian premises to justify its conclusions. The voter ignorance that is the focus of Democracy and Political Ignorance has also been identified as a serious problem by prominent liberal scholars, such as Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, in their important book Democracy for Realists. Your Yale Law School colleague Dan Kahan and his coauthors have done great work showing that people process information in a much less biased way in non-political contexts than in contexts where the information is primarily relevant to assessing policy issues for purposes of being a better voter.

The relevance of political ignorance to foot voting and political freedom – explored in detail in Free to Move – also doesn’t rest on uniquely libertarian foundations. It is relevant from the standpoint of any theory that values political choice and the idea of government by consent. The American Medical Association requires doctors to get a patient’s  “informed consent” before they can treat him or her. Government policy, like medical care, is also often literally a matter of life and death, as we have all seen during the coronavirus pandemic and the current civil unrest triggered by abusive police practices.

Yet, widespread voter ignorance ensures that current democratic government rarely, if ever, has anything approaching the informed consent of the government. Most Americans cannot even name the three branches of government, much less know what their policies are and their likely effects.
As currently constituted, our government is like a doctor whose ministrations you cannot refuse and whose effectiveness we don’t know enough to judge; rationally ignorant voters often can’t separate out effective treatments from snake oil. That should trouble us whether we are libertarians or not.
I would add that the advantages of foot voting over ballot-box voting analyzed in the book apply to a wide range of theories of political freedom, including those developed by progressive political theorists, such as the ideal of political freedom as “non-domination” (discussed in Chapter 1).

JB: I suspect that some readers will think that there are important differences-- in terms of advantages and disadvantages-- between the right to move freely between different parts of a country, and the right of free migration between different countries. One of the goals of your book is to show that the advantages and disadvantages are more similar than people on the left and the right generally think. Could you explain why?

Ilya Somin: Highlighting the similarities between these types of foot voting is one of the main purposes of the book! I started my career as a federalism scholar, focusing in large part on foot voting within domestic federal systems. But over time, I came to see that international migration was, if anything, an even more important example of foot voting. Both international and domestic freedom of movement enable people to choose the government policies they prefer to live under. Both can greatly increase freedom and opportunity of all kinds for large numbers of people, particularly the poor and disadvantaged. And both enable people to make decisive and well-informed choices to a greater extent than ballot-box voting does. I expand on these similarities much more fully in the book.

If there is a difference, it’s that international migration offers even greater opportunities for expanding political freedom than the domestic variety. The difference between whatever you think is the best US state and whatever you think is the worst is substantial; but it’s minor compared to that between the US and Mexico, to say nothing of the US and Venezuela, or the US and North Korea. International migration empowers people to fundamentally transform their lives for the better in a way that is rarely achieved by any other social process or policy change. Think of people escaping poverty and oppression under brutal dictatorships, ethnic and religious minorities fleeing persecution, and women fleeing patriarchal societies, among many other examples.

Some one-third of the world’s people live in authoritarian states where international migration is their only chance of exercising any political choice at all.  They don’t even have the one-in-a-million chance of influencing government policy that ballot box voting offers.

Finally, virtually all the standard arguments for restricting international migration also apply to internal migration, such as claims that migrants might vote for bad policies, increase crime, spread bad cultural values, overburden the welfare state, or compete with natives for jobs. All of these can easily be used to justify barring Californians from migrating to Texas or West Virginians from moving to Virginia. After all, people moving from poor state to a wealthy one could potentially compete for jobs, get on welfare, increase crime, and so on. Such arguments were in fact used to justify restricting interstate migration by African-Americans and “paupers” in the nineteenth century. I go into these parallels in more detail in Chapter 6 of the book, where I also describe a variety of ways to address these issues without restricting migration – either domestic or international.

JB: Foot voting requires that the state you leave is no longer able to regulate you. If you leave for tax reasons, then it's important that the country you leave can't still tax your operations (or tax them as much). Doesn't your argument for foot voting depend on a certain conception of limited jurisdiction of states and countries? You can never avoid all of these externalities, of course: even if you leave the United States or Russia, you are still affected by its foreign policy and its nuclear arsenal.

Ilya Somin: It's true that foot voting is of little use if the government you leave behind can continue to control your life. Fortunately, most governments are in fact severely restricted in their ability to impose their rules and regulations on people who do not live or work within their territory. At least as a general rule, if you leave a particular regional or national government, they can no longer tax you, regulate you, or otherwise impose their will.  In that respect, if not in some others, my ideas are actually congruent with dominant status quo conceptions of the limits of state sovereignty.

The issue of extraterritorial taxation is one I did not cover in the book, but probably should have. The US is one of a tiny handful of nations that taxes citizens’ income regardless of where they live and where they earned it. That much-criticized policy should be abolished. But even if it remains in place, leaving the US still allows you to escape the reach of the vast bulk of US laws. And even the extraterritorial taxation can be avoided if you are willing to give up US citizenship.

JB: Some kinds of problems that affect our lives-- for example global warming, or nuclear proliferation-- don't seem to be easily solved by foot voting. It's hard to outrun them. Do you think that ease of migration might nevertheless help with these kinds of problems?

Ilya Somin: It’s true that there are some issues that are so large-scale that they can only be handled – if at all – on a global level. Global warming is probably the best example. But the vast majority of public policy issues aren’t like that. Indeed, most can be more decentralized than is currently the case. If, for example, Switzerland or Denmark can have their own education policies, health care policies, and retirement policies, the same goes for the many US states with comparable or larger populations. We can also decentralize more issues to the level of the private sector, to such institutions as private planned communities, discussed in Chapter 4 of the book.

Free migration can also indirectly help address some of the few issues that really do require global solutions. Economists estimate that full open borders throughout the world would roughly double world GDP by enabling large numbers of people to move to places where they can be more productive.  There are also large economic gains to be had from expanding internal freedom of movement within the United States and other countries by,  for example, cutting back on exclusionary zoning.

A wealthier world is one that would have vastly more resources available to deal with global warming and other difficult international problems. In fact, as discussed in Chapter 6, increased societal wealth is a crucial element in addressing a wide range of environmental issues.

JB: How should we think about your thesis in the context of our current pandemic? Migration from state to state or country to country can spread infection. One of the first things many political leaders did was to limit migration. If there will be more pandemics in our future, how should we think about the proper boundaries of the rights of free migration?

Ilya Somin: I wrote the book before the pandemic hit, and it’s fair to say I did not anticipate it. However, in Chapter 6, I did outline a general three-part framework for addressing consequentialist justifications for restricting migration, one that I think applies well to the pandemic situation:

First, we should ask how serious the problem really is and whether migration restrictions can do much to solve it. Many of the standard objections to free migration are significantly overblown. If there is little or no problem to begin with, we should not be willing to restrict migration to “solve” it. Ditto if there is a real problem, but migration restrictions are unlikely to improve the situation.
Second, where migration creates genuine problems, it is often possible to deal with the issue by means of “keyhole solutions” that minimize the risk without barring migrants. Instead of applying a meat cleaver that undermines political freedom and inflicts great sacrifices on potential migrants, it is better to apply a scalpel.

Finally, where keyhole solutions are inadequate, policymakers should  consider tapping the vast wealth created by expanded migration to mitigate negative side-effects that cannot be addressed in other ways.

This framework can work for pandemics, as well as a variety of other issues covered in the book. Here’s how:

The coronavirus is a genuine problem. But it is not  clear that travel restrictions can do much to slow its spread, especially when there is already extensive “community spread” in  the destination country. Restricting international freedom of movement is unlikely to do much to prevent pandemics, unless perhaps we can truly hermetically seal one society from another. Pandemics such as the “Black Death” devastated the world in even in eras when the vast majority of people were peasants or serfs who rarely left the villages where they were born.

To the extent that migrants from regions with severe disease outbreaks pose a danger, there is a keyhole solution: impose a 14 day quarantine on entrants, as has been done by South Korea, which has done a far better job of constraining Covid 19 than the US. By that means, migrants can be isolated until it is clear they do not have the virus or are no longer contagious.

A 14-day quarantine may be a deal-breaker for tourists or short-term business travelers. But, for most migrants, it is a small price to pay for the opportunity to live in a society with greater freedom and opportunity.

Finally, the vast wealth and innovation generated by free migration can help protect us against future pandemics far better than migration restrictions could. Wealthier societies are also healthier societies, because they can afford better public health systems, and generate more medical innovation. In addition, immigrants are disproportionately represented among the medical workers and scientists whose work is crucial to both dealing with the current pandemic and curtailing future ones.

I don’t deny there can be situations where short-term restrictions on both international migration and internal freedom of movement can potentially be justified in order to halt the spread of disease.  I do not advocate an absolute right of freedom of movement, merely a strong presumption in favor of it. But, as a general rule, free migration is actually good for public health, and potential negative effects can be mitigated by keyhole solutions. I discuss these issues in greater detail here.

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Part two of the interview will appear tomorrow

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