Book Review: Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom

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Ballot box voting is often considered the essence of political freedom. But it has two major shortcomings: individual voters have little chance of making a difference, and they also face strong incentives to remain ignorant about the issues at stake. "Voting with your feet," however, avoids both of these pitfalls and offers a wider range of choices. In his new book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom (Oxford University Press), Ilya Somin argues that broadening opportunities for foot voting can greatly enhance political liberty for millions of people around the world.

People can vote with their feet through international migration, by choosing where to live within a federal system, and by making decisions in the private sector. These three types of foot voting are rarely considered together, but Somin explains how they have important common virtues and can be mutually reinforcing. He contends that all forms of foot voting should be expanded and shows how both domestic constitutions and international law can be structured to increase opportunities for foot voting while mitigating possible downsides.

Somin addresses a variety of common objections to expanded migration rights, including claims that the "self-determination" of natives requires giving them the power to exclude migrants, and arguments that migration is likely to have harmful side effects, such as undermining political institutions, overburdening the welfare state, and increasing crime and terrorism. While these objections are usually directed at international migration, Somin explains how, if taken seriously, they would also justify severe restrictions on domestic freedom of movement. By making a systematic case for a more open world, Free to Move challenges conventional wisdom on both the left and the right.  


Prof. Ilya Somin, Professor of Law, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, and Author, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom

Moderator: Prof. John O. McGinnis, George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law



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Event Transcript



Dean Reuter:  Welcome to Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society's practice groups. I'm Dean Reuter, Vice President, General Counsel, and Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society. For exclusive access to live recordings of practice group teleforum calls, become a Federalist Society member today at



Nicholas Marr:  Welcome to The Federalist Society's Teleforum Conference Call. This afternoon's call will be a review of Professor Ilya Somin's new book entitled, "Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom." My name is Nick Marr, and I'm Assistant Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society.


      As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the experts on today's call.


      Today, we are fortunate to have with us Professor John McGinnis, who is a George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, and Professor Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School and author of the book we'll be talking about today, published by Oxford University Press. In addition to the hard cover and Kindle version [inaudible 00:01:04] will be released next week, there will be an audio version as well.


      After our speakers give their opening remarks, we will go to audience Q&A. Thank you all for sharing with us today. John, the floor is yours.


Prof. John O. McGinnis:  Sorry --


Prof. Ilya Somin:  I believe I'm supposed to start, so I’ll do so. I want to thank The Federalist Society for organizing this event and John McGinnis for what I'm sure will be his thoughtful comments and questions and, of course, all of you for being in the audience. I'm going to give a general overview of the book and what it's about, and then John will raise some points and ask some questions, and then we'll throw it open to questions from the audience.


      So, traditionally, most people think of political freedom as something that we do at the ballot box. We're going to go to the ballot box in November, perhaps, and vote for Donald Trump or vote for Joe Biden or perhaps for a third-party candidate. And that's what political choice is supposed to be about. But in this book, I suggest that, often, we can have a better range of choice and more political freedom if we expand people's opportunities to vote with their feet. And they can do so in three different types of ways.


      One is foot voting within a federal system, like choosing what state or local government you want to live under based, at least in part, on the policies that they have, like taxes, education, crime control, and so forth.


      A second is foot voting in the private sector. As I'll discuss, often, there are private sector institutions, such as private planned communities, which offer services and goods and often are very similar or compete with those offered by regional or local governments, and that can greatly expand people's opportunity to vote with their feet.


      Finally, there is foot voting through international migration, when we decide what nation we want to live under at least based in part on the policies the government offers. This is actually how the ancestors and most Americans came to the U.S. And I will suggest that, here, there are even bigger possibilities for increases in political freedom and increases in human welfare than with the other two types of foot voting.


      There is, of course, a lot of existing literature on all three of these kinds of foot voting focusing on them one at a time. What I try to do in this book is bring the three together into a common framework, which I think has never really been done in the same way before.


      So I'll start off by talking about some general advantages that foot voting has over ballot box voting because, although voting at the ballot box is extremely important and valuable, it has two significant weaknesses. One is that, when you vote at the ballot box, the chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election is infinitesimally small. In an American presidential election, it's about one in sixty million. If you live in a swing state, it might be as high as one in one million, but that's still very low odds. Even in a state or in most local elections, your odds of having a decisive impact are higher but still usually very low, maybe one chance in many thousands or one chance in several million or the like.


      In most other contexts, we would not say that you have meaningful freedom if you have only one-in-a-million chance of making a choice that actually matters. We would not say that you have freedom of speech if you have only a one-in-one-million chance of determining what kind of opinions you are allowed to express. We would not say you have meaningful religious freedom if you have only a one-in-a-million chance of being able to decide what religion you want to practice. And I would suggest that the same thing is true of political freedom. You have very little real political freedom if you have only one chance in many millions of influencing the government policies that you are going to be living under.


      The second downside of ballot box voting is one that's closely related to the first. Precisely because the odds of having a decisive impact are so extremely low, voters have very little incentive to learn about the issues at stake in an election. This is what economists call rational ignorance. We don't want to spend much time and effort acquiring information about a decision that's unlikely to have any real effect anyway. And that's exactly what survey data shows most voters do. They often don't know even very basic things about how the political system works or what government policies are out there.


      For instance, surveys show that only about one third of Americans can even name the three branches of the federal government—the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. They also don't know many other basic things such as how the federal government spends its money and which government officials are responsible for which issues and so forth. I discuss this in Chapter 1 of Free to Move and in much more detail in my previous book, Democracy and Political Ignorance.


      The American Medical Association says that, before a doctor can operate on you, they have to get the patient's informed consent. To the extent that we think informed consent is important, it seems like it should apply to government as well. Government policies, also like medical treatment, are often literally matters of life and death. I think we've all seen that during the current pandemic but also in many other occasions as well. Yet, as it turns out, the government, for most of the time, is like a doctor whose ministrations you can't avoid. You have only a one-in-a-million chance of actually influencing their decisions. And, at least for most voters, they have great difficulty figuring out what it is, in fact, the doctor is doing and are hard pressed to tell whether he or she is actually treating a disease or whether he's instead offering you snake oil.


      Foot voting does better than ballot box voting on both of these dimensions. When you decide where to live or what options to choose in the private sector, usually that's a decision that will make a big difference and, therefore, you take it more seriously. If you're like most people, you've probably spent more time and effort deciding which smart phone to buy than you spent deciding who to vote for for president or for any other political office. That's not because the smart phone is more important than who governs the country or that it deals in more complicated issues than the federal government does. It's because you know that the decision about the smart phone actually matters. Whereas, on the other hand, if you flip on the smart phone and you go to a news site and you have the misfortune of seeing politicians on there, you know that your odds of affecting who holds those offices are extremely small, so you devote relatively little time and effort to that.


      So, therefore, when it comes to voting with your feet, there are important advantages both in terms of being able to make a choice that actually matters and also in terms of making a better informed choice precisely because it matters more. It has a real chance of making an impact. People take it more seriously. They worry about the issues and think about them more carefully. And this is backed both by intuition but also by a lot of empirical evidence, some of which I summarize in the book.


      I'd now like to take a closer look at the three different types of foot voting that I consider in the book. The first is the one that I think most people readily think of when they hear the concept of voting with your feet, which is foot voting under federalism. And this has many important advantages. In the U.S., of course, we have 50 different states but also many thousands of local governments, and this provides a lot of different options for people to choose from—more, usually, than you can get in a ballot box voting election. And that creates an opportunity where people can better fit the jurisdiction they live in to their policy preferences to what works best for them and their families.


      Historically, as I discuss in the book, this is especially beneficial to the poor and the disadvantaged, people seeking job opportunities, people seeking to escape corrupt or oppressive government policies. I give a number of examples in the book, the most famous, of course, being the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North and the West, escaping oppressive segregationist policies. More recent examples include people fleeing badly run jurisdictions such as Detroit or ones that have high taxes and high housing costs imposed by the government and seeking opportunities elsewhere.


      And there are things that we can do that I describe in the book that would make this form of foot voting more accessible to more people, and I describe a number of reforms that can accomplish that. I also address a number of standard objections to foot voting within a federal system, for example, the claim that it doesn't work well because of high moving costs or the claim that it will result in a race to the bottom. And, therefore, far from there being beneficial competition between jurisdictions to attract people, there might actually be harmful competition where all of the jurisdictions only care about attracting business interests and they screw over everybody else.


      I make the point in the book that there's not much empirical evidence to support this theory. And it doesn't make much sense as a matter of logic either because, even though jurisdictions do want to attract businesses in order to get more tax revenue, they also want to attract workers for that purpose as well. They pay actually as much or more taxes as businesses do. And, even from the standpoint of attracting businesses, it's important to be able to attract workers as well because businesses want to be in places where workers want to be. If the workers dislike living in that area, then businesses either won't be able to attract them or they will have to pay higher wage premiums in order to get people to work for them in that location. So the race-to-the-bottom theory, for the most part, I think, is incorrect though there are a few special cases where it's relevant.


      I next talk about foot voting in the private sector, which many people don't really think of as foot voting or as an alternative to government in federalism but, in reality, it's a closely related phenomenon. In the U.S., we currently have almost 70 million Americans living in private planned communities such as condominiums and homeowners' associations and the like. Very often, these organizations provide services that are similar to those provided by state or local governments. They can provide security, environmental amenities, sometimes even education and other things. And the data show that often the quality of services they provide is higher, actually, than that provided by local governments. For instance, their security services don't have the same kinds of issues with police brutality and the like as public police all too often do, as we've seen, sadly, in recent weeks.


      And there are other advantages as well. One big one is that private planned communities can offer a wider range of choice than state and local governments can because there can be a lot more of them in a given region and, therefore, you can have more options and with lower moving costs than you can in a purely governmentally run system.


      It is sometimes said that private sector foot voting is really only an option for the wealthy. So, for instance, Robert B. Reich, Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor, famously called it the secession of the successful, that it's really about wealthy people just walling themselves off from the rest of society. I think the data suggests this is not true. There are not 70 million wealthy people in the U.S. unless you define wealthy extremely expansively. And it is the case that middle class and even sometimes working-class people can take advantage of these arrangements. But, in the book, I also suggest that there are reforms we can adopt to make this form of organization more widely available to more people, including more of the poor, so that foot voting opportunities can be expanded further.


      Ultimately, I don't claim that private sector foot voting can completely displace federalism, but it can be used more; it can be expanded. And both federalism and the private sector can offer people more choices and more foot voting opportunities if we decentralize more functions of government and, in some cases, if we leave more issues to the private sector. And it's worth adding that private planned communities are just one example of private sector foot voting. There are many others, some of which I discuss in the book. For instance, civil society offers a wide range of organizations such as churches, synagogues, mosques, and the like. And, of course, we can also have foot voting for education through school choice. And there are quite a number of other options also.


      The next type of foot voting I'd like to focus on is, I think, the one that's the most controversial, but it also offers the biggest potential gains. And this is foot voting through international migration. And the gains here potentially are just truly huge. Economists estimate that if we had complete freedom of movement throughout the world, the GDP of the world would roughly double. That is, the world would be twice as wealthy as it is today. Why is that? It's because there are hundreds of millions of people who currently are trapped in places where the government is oppressive or corrupt, and, as a result, no matter how smart they are or how hard they work, they have little or no chance of escaping poverty. Think of a person living in Venezuela or North Korea or Haiti. They have very little chance of ever not being poor no matter what they do.


      On the other hand, when that same person moves to the U.S. or Western Europe or somewhere else which is a freer, more productive society, they can almost immediately double, triple or quadruple their income, and that doesn't even take into account that they can improve their skills over time as, of course, those societies offer more opportunities to do that than the ones they came from.


      But the gains here are not just purely economic. They also apply to human freedom of all kinds, both political choice and others as well. Think of people escaping oppressive governments, like the ones I just mentioned – Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and others. Think of religious minorities who are oppressed in their home countries, women who are oppressed in sexist or patriarchal societies like Saudi Arabia, and many, many other examples. These gains are harder to quantify than the purely economic ones, but there's no doubt that they're enormous and that we can capture more of them if we reduce barriers to migration. And, of course, the gains, while they apply to the migrants, the enormous extra productivity massively benefits natives as well. When you double the world's GDP or come anywhere even near close to it, there's going to be enormous spillover benefits for almost everybody.


      I do recognize that, with foot voting through international migration, there are higher moving costs in many cases than with foot voting in the private sector and federal systems. In the book, I discuss some ways to reduce that, but it can't be reduced all the way. Nonetheless, expanding opportunities for foot voting through international migration has the potential for enormous gains even though moving costs will necessarily be higher.


      I would add, finally, that foot voting of this kind is especially significant for the roughly one third of the world's population that lives under governments that are not democratic. For those people, they don't even have the one-in-a-million or one-in-sixty-million chance of affecting the policies they live under that the ballot box offers in a democracy. For most of them, their only real opportunity to exercise any political choice at all is the opportunity to do so through international migration if we would only extend it to them.


      In Chapters 5 and 6 of the book, I take up a wide range of different kinds of objections to freedom of movement and expanded foot voting. Most of those objections today are used primarily against international migration. But it turns out, as I discuss in the book, that, if taken seriously, most of them would justify severe restrictions on internal migration as well. So if you're not willing to bite that bullet, that's another reason to rethink the validity of these objections.


      In the book, I divide the objections into two kinds of categories. The first category is one that holds that there is just an inherent right to reject migrants. That is, that the people who live in a given jurisdiction or the government there has a right to refuse entry for almost any reason it wants. The second type is one which says that, maybe we don't have a general right to refuse entry for any reason we want, but we can do so if there are specific negative side effects of migration such as, for instance, increasing crime or overburdening the welfare state.


      So I'd like to talk briefly, now, about the intrinsic right to exclude people. And those types of arguments also fall into two categories. One is the idea that a particular territory is owned by a given ethnic or racial or cultural group. That is, "France is for the French" or "Germany is for the Germans," and the French can exclude people who are not French because this territory belongs to people of a particular ethnicity or culture.


      I think there are several different problems with this kind of argument. One big one is that, if you look at the history of almost all countries, it's very difficult to say that there's a point in time where one ethnic group or one culture really owned it or developed it and others only came later. In reality, as far back as we can trace the history of these places, there have always been multiple groups there of different kinds. That certainly is true for European countries, even more true for the U.S. and others.


      A second and even deeper problem with this sort of theory is that it's a justification for racial or ethnic discrimination. In most other contexts, liberal democracies say that we ban or we at least disfavor discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or race. We say that, if you're born black or Hispanic or white, that says nothing about how much freedom you're entitled to. It says nothing about whether you're a good person or not. And it certainly doesn't tell us anything morally significant about you. It's just a characteristic that you have no control over. It's a situation of you chose the wrong parents.


      If this is true in situations like employment, in education, and other areas of government policy, I maintain it should also be true with respect to migration policy—that there should not be favoritism based on race, ethnicity or culture, just as it's also considered wrong for good reason in a domestic context as well. So Martin Luther King famously said that it's not the color of your skin but the content of your character that should matter, that the race of your birth is not something that should determine where you're allowed to live. I would suggest that the place of your birth also should not be allowed to determine it because it's also a morally arbitrary characteristic.


      In the United States, we more often hear not the ethnic or cultural justification for exclusion, but a more individualistic one, which analogizes government to homeowners or to members of a club. So, in my house, I can decide to exclude people from entering, and I don't necessarily have to have a good reason for doing so. I can just say, "I don't like this particular person." Now, similarly, we can form a private club. It could be a club for baseball fans, for example. And I could exclude all the fans of other sports even though there isn't necessarily a good reason for thinking that fans of other sports are worse than baseball fans. So, similarly, you could say that the U.S. government or any government can exclude anybody it wants, and it doesn't necessarily have to have a good reason.


      There are a number of problems with this kind of argument as well. I think the biggest one is that it has dire implications not just for immigrants but also for natives. Consider that a homeowner or, for that matter, a private club can determine the speech that is allowed within its domain or the types of religions that can be practiced there. I can say that, in my house, only Islam can be practiced. I can say only speech favoring the Democratic Party will be allowed and so forth. So if a government has all the same rights as a private homeowner or as the members of a private club, then it would have all those rights with respect to natives as well as immigrants and, therefore, it would be a license, essentially, for having a totalitarian state.


      Ironically, also, this kind of argument, while it appeals to private property rights, in reality it undermines real private property because actual private property owners are then forbidden in many cases to rent their property to immigrants, to hire them to work on their property, to develop various kinds of social, economic, and religious relationships on their property with immigrants, and so forth. So the analogy between a government and a private property owner is a very dangerous one and one that people that care about actual private property rights should want to reject.


      Many people argue, however, that, even if there isn't the general right to reject migrants, there is a right to exclude people based on particular types of negative effects of migration. In the book, I go through a great many of these. Here, I'll just very briefly mention a few. Obvious examples include overburdening the welfare state. Another might be that immigrants have bad political or cultural values and, if you let them in, they might vote for the wrong people. A third might be increased crime. Perhaps the immigrants have higher crime rates than the natives. And there are others like this as well.


      In the book, I present a three-part framework for addressing these kinds of problems. One is to ask how big a problem is it really? Often, the claimed problem is either nonexistent or it's much smaller than advocates say it is. This is true, for example, for the notion that immigrants overburden the welfare state. It turns out that, both in the U.S. and in Europe, jurisdictions that have more immigrants do not, as a result, have higher welfare spending per capita and that the vast majority of immigrants, even relatively poor ones, are actually net fiscal contributors to the government's coffers. So this turns out to be not that much of an issue.


      But let's say that there is a real issue. Then the second stage in my analysis is to ask is there a keyhole solution? Scholars refer to keyhole solutions as ones where you address the negative effect by measures other than actually excluding people. And, often, it turns out that there are solutions for welfare. An obvious one that we already practice pretty extensively is simply limiting the range of welfare benefits for which migrants are eligible.


      There are also keyhole solutions for negative political effect. Again, we already use them to some extent. Immigrants to the U.S. are not allowed to become citizens and vote until they've been here at least five years, and they have to pass a civics test that, data show, almost two thirds of native-born Americans would fail. So, in principle, if you wanted to, you could lengthen the citizenship period. You could make the test harder, and so forth. And there are similar keyhole solutions that I describe in the book for a variety of other claimed negative effects of migration.


      Finally, if there is a real problem and, also, there is not an obvious keyhole solution that can be used, I suggest we can also use the extra wealth generated by migration to offset possible negative side effects. As I mentioned before, freeing up migration, both internal and external, can greatly increase societal wealth. That creates a lot of new resources that could be used for many different purposes. One of them could be to address negative side effects of migration.


      For example, the evidence actually shows that immigrants to the U.S. have much lower crime rates than natives. But let's say that wasn't true. Let's say they were increasing crime. You could offset the negative effect by doing things like hiring more police officers. Lots of data shows that hiring more police and putting them on the street actually deters crime. You might want to couple that with something we should do anyway, which is to hold police more accountable for the abuses that they do. That's perhaps a topic for another teleforum. But having more police can offset the negative effects of crime and reduce crime overall. And that can easily be done with some of the wealth created by increased migration.


      Indeed, as I discuss in the book, just by abolishing I.C.E. and other similar agencies and transferring the money to conventional law enforcement, that alone could pay for the many thousands of additional ordinary police officers. And there are other similar ways to use the wealth generated by migration to offset other kinds of negative side effects, and I discuss those in more detail in the book.


      The last point that I would like to make about these objections is that almost all of them apply to internal freedom of movement at least as much as they do to the international kind. Even though, today, these objections are usually put forward, at least in the U.S., primarily as justifications for restricting international migration. If you're worried about overburdening of the welfare state, that can happen if migrants move from a poor American state to a wealthy one. If you're worried about them voting for the wrong things, that can also happen; indeed it can happen more quickly through internal migration because they get to vote almost immediately. That is, you have Texans complaining that liberal Californians might move in and vote for policies that the conservative Texans don't like.


      And you can say the same thing for even some of these rights to exclude people as a general matter. If the United States is a club with the right to exclude, why not Virginia or Texas? If the dominant ethnic group of France has a right to exclude members of other ethnic groups, why not the dominant ethnic group of the Province of Quebec or the majority ethnic population of Hawaii, and so forth. So, it's true, there might be some people who are willing to bite this bullet and say yes, it's absolutely correct that Quebec should get to exclude people from the rest of Canada, or that Texas can exclude Californians lest they vote for the wrong things. But if you're not willing to bite that bullet, then, at the very least, there's a tension in your position.


      In the last parts of the book, I discuss ways in which constitutional design can be structured in such a way as to maximize opportunities for foot voting while minimizing potential downsides. And I also discuss some implications for international law and governance where I talk about how international law can be expanded to protect migrants and refugees better but also warn against various forms of world government and global governance, so-called, that would tend to undermine the ability for people to vote with their feet.


      So more could be said, and I look forward to John's questions and also to taking questions from the audience. Thank you.


Prof. John O. McGinnis:  Well, thank you very much, Ilya. First of all, I want to congratulate you on the book. It really is a comprehensive investigation of foot voting. And, as you said at the beginning, it brings together different strands of foot voting, and I think it is very able in answering many of the objections.


      So, before opening up to our listeners, I'll ask just two questions that are somewhat more conceptual in nature. In reading this book, I was most reminded of, and the other book I read—and this is high praise—of Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Anarchy, State, and Utopia ends with an idea in which Nozick -- is that we have -- one way of thinking of utopia is voluntary migration to various places. And I sense there's a kind of a family resemblance here.


      But that makes me press you on one aspect. How much is your argument dependent on a very strong libertarian philosophy? In other words, you analogize political rights to rights of freedom of speech. But maybe we'll say political rights are more collective. So that's the abstract version. The more concrete version would say that, well, one thing that unlimited foot voting—let's just focus on the United States at the moment and the federal system— would do would make redistribution more difficult. It would certainly make redistribution through states -- make it very hard for them to choose different levels of welfare spending. Whereas, people who had burdensome spending in certain states would have incentives to exit, and the encouragement of that might be very consistent with a libertarian philosophy but not so consistent with a more collective view of what politics is all about.


Prof. Ilya Somin:  So there is two good questions there and maybe three. Let me try to take them in the order that John said them so as to minimize any possible confusion. First, is this idea I have in the book dependent on a libertarian conception that most, if not all, non-libertarians would reject? I would say that the answer is no. While, obviously, I am a libertarian—I can't deny that background influences me—I deliberately, in most the book, did not rely on any specific libertarian notion of freedom.


      To the contrary, in Chapter 1 of the book, I discuss various notions of political freedom offered by non-libertarian philosophers, such as non-domination theorists, the great left-wing philosopher John Rawls, and a number of others. And I explained that, for all of those conceptions, foot voting has important advantages over ballot box voting primarily because it enables the individual to make a decisive choice and also because it offers all sorts of opportunities to benefit the poor and disadvantaged, which is an important concern of left-of-center political theorists.


      So I would say, and I note this in the book, that it rests broadly speaking on liberal foundations within the liberal tradition. So if you favor something like theocracy or virtue ethics and the like, you may not find much of value in this book. But, I think, for a variety of people within the liberal political tradition broadly defined, whether they're libertarians or not, I think my arguments do have a lot to offer.


      On the second issue of what about redistribution, this is something that I do consider in the book, particularly in Chapter 2. One point that I make is that a high degree of freedom of movement is potentially compatible with having some degree of centralized redistribution of wealth. This is not a new idea. A number of federalism theorists have offered it before. So, if you do believe in a high degree of redistribution, you could centralize that function but also decentralize a lot of other powers.


      In addition, as I mentioned in my initial presentation, if your theory is simply that new migrants will eat up the welfare system or take too much welfare, you could have limits on the amount of welfare that the new migrants are allowed to take in. At the same time, the additional wealth that they create would actually enable better and more extensive funding of the welfare state for natives. I talk about that point in the book as well.


      Finally, if the goal of redistribution is actually to make the lot of the poor better—which, I think, at least, is the most laudable goal of redistribution, the most defensible—then foot voting also does that. And it does that, actually, in many ways much better than even the best functioning redistributive system can.


      The biggest gains for the poor in the history of the world were the ability to move to places like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, where they could be more productive, earn higher incomes, and also be better off in a wide range of ways that can't easily be captured by income statistics. So better foot voting opportunities would actually make redistribution less necessary. That's true, certainly, for international foot voting where there's a lot of data that I discuss in the book which suggests that migration improves the lot of the poor far better than redistribution through foreign aid. But it's also true for internal freedom of movement within the U.S. where I discuss estimates which show that, if we break down some barriers to it, like zoning restrictions and occupational licensing, that could make millions of poor people—both the white working class and also racial minorities—better off than they currently are by enabling them to move to places where they're more prosperous.


      Finally, I think you're right that there's some analogy with Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and I probably should have cited Part III of his book more. One reason why I didn't as much is that I think Part III of his book mostly deals with voluntary communities in the private sector, whereas mine encompasses the public sector as well. And, for reasons that I mentioned when I discuss the issue of private clubs as opposed to government, I think the appropriate rules for a government are different from those for a private club. For example, I do agree with Nozick and with others that private clubs should have a much stronger right to exclude people than a territorial government should have.


Prof. John O. McGinnis:  Well, thank you. So my second and last question will really be focusing more on the migration aspect in which you really offer essentially an open border as a kind of, at least, regulative ideal. And I wonder whether you've dealt sufficiently with this utilitarian question of how far a democracy depends on a kind of cultural assimilation into ways of doing things. If a democracy is somewhat fragile, is dependent on a long -- at least dependent on, to some extent, a shared history, it may not, of course, suggest that no migration should be permitted. But it may suggest that there may need to be limits on migration for a country to be able to assimilate people in those traditions. And that is a utilitarian question that really can't be answered, I think, easily on the basis of past experiments in relatively limited migration because larger migrations may raise questions about that capacity for assimilation.


      And, as you say, I had sort of two questions in my last one. So I'll add this point. You might think that it's also particularly problematic at our time in our history. At one point, I think, we had much more assimilationist culture. We now have a culture more like politics in which people may say, "Well, people shouldn't assimilate at all." And they revel in that. And that may actually suggest that we have less of a capacity to bring in these larger numbers of migrants who may not be part of a rather fragile -- I mean, it's fragile in the sense -- it's not been -- an experiment that's been tried many times in the history of the world, looking over the last 10,000 years at our experiment in democracy.


Prof. Ilya Somin:  So there's really several questions here—one about the specific situation in the U.S. right now, the other about the more general issue about assimilation and democracy, and a third about well, maybe if it's a large enough number of people, the natives could be swamped by the immigrants and the immigrants would have bad values or whatnot and not sustain democracy. Let me try to take those questions in the order that you raised them.


      On the issue of assimilation in the U.S., it actually is not true that we're assimilating people at a lower rate than before. In the book, I cite the recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, which collects a lot of social science data on this, which suggest that immigrants today are learning English and otherwise assimilating at as least as high a rate as in the past, maybe even higher. And that particularly, by the way, is true also for Hispanic immigrants, which is the group for which assimilation concerns are most often raised. Indeed, the standard data somewhat underestimates the rate of assimilation because the most assimilated immigrants often don't identify as Hispanic or Latino in surveys. They just identify as White or refuse to put down an answer on that question and, so, there is somewhat of an underestimate there. So the issue of identity politics -- we should not confuse what's going on in certain elite intellectual locations or universities with what goes on in broader society. Often, it's not the same thing.


      On the second question of democracy depending on assimilation and values, this is one that I discuss at some length in the book. One of the things that I note is that, both in the U.S. and to some extent in Europe, there is actually not nearly as much divergence in political views and orientations between migrants and natives as is often said. And that's not terribly surprising given that migrants in most cases are people who chose the institutions of the new country over wherever it is they came from. That doesn't mean there's no disagreement, but more moderate kind of disagreements are routinely handled by democracies and should not be a major cause for concern. And we actually should not even assume necessarily that, when there are differences, that the natives' preferences are necessarily better. Often that isn't necessarily the case.


      Where there is more of a problem, there are keyhole solutions of the kinds that I mentioned earlier—delaying when people have the right to vote, having civics tests for eligibility for citizenship, and so on. And I also discuss in the book that the best mechanisms for assimilation and for groups working together is actually giving people access to labor market, which is good in and of itself because work is good and also because people become more productive. But to the extent that in some European countries they have issues assimilating immigrants, it's often because they have severely restricted labor markets, which is very bad not just for immigrants but also for natives. Countries like France and Spain, for example, have very high unemployment rates for young people, even native-born ones, because their labor markets are so restrictive, and that's something they need to change whether they have a large number of immigrants or not.


      On the last point, of the issue of swamping, that if you have a lot of people come in in a short time or a short enough time they could be swamped, it's impossible to rule out such a scenario with absolute certainty. You can always imagine theoretical situations where it would happen. But, in the book, I discuss a lot of evidence to the effect that liberal democratic institutions are more robust than this scenario assumes—the case of Israel, which was swamped, in effect, in the 1990s by immigrants from a very liberal society; the one that I was born in myself, actually, the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, it had no negative effect or virtually no negative effect on the quality of Israeli democratic institutions. And I mentioned some other examples like that in the book also. And, in addition, in most cases, swamping isn't that likely because immigration is a relatively gradual process. And, therefore, if you eliminate legal barriers to it, obviously, it would be higher than it is now, but it wouldn't immediately be everybody who might migrate. Rather, the greater migration would happen over a period of time.


      So my argument here is in favor of a presumption of freedom of movement, both domestic and international. I don't argue that the presumption is 100 percent. I don't believe that any human right can apply 100 percent in all circumstances, and that includes freedom of speech, private property, and so on. What I ask, however, is that, before you justify a migration restriction, you go through the three-part test that I mentioned earlier and only justify it if the answer to all three questions is no. And I ask for consistency. If the argument that you're relying on would justify restricting internal migration as well, then I ask that that be admitted and that it be recognized that, if internal migration causes the same problem, and the answer to the three questions is also no, then we would impose it in that situation as well.


      I think there are relatively few real-world situations where the answers to the three questions really is no, but I do think such cases can exist. I give one in the book, the example of Estonia and its relationship with Russia. But I think such cases are rare and they certainly can't justify more than a small fraction of all the migration restrictions, both domestic and international, that currently exist in the world.


Prof. John O. McGinnis:  All right. Well, thank you very much. I think we should go to questions from those on the call.


Nicholas Marr:  Okay. Thanks, John and Ilya. Let's go to audience questions. Okay. It looks like we have a question waiting. Caller, 617 area code, you're on the line.


Gary Wheaton:  Good afternoon, gentlemen. Very interesting topic. Gary Wheaton here in New Hampshire again.


      So, how do you answer this one: Based on the presumption that people, by nature, throughout all history, bend left or right -- and, again, that's a presumption that I agree with, you might not -- so, making that assumption, presumption, whatever -- I think you called it people want to be in your own club or your own house, sort of the same nature and that type of thing -- and, then, the other preface I want to draw there is, if you look at our Constitution, it is a concept of individual rights. There's nothing in the Constitution that limits individual rights; it's just -- 100 percent of it's to limit government. So it's a philosophy. And, then, if you look at the European Union -- going in a very, very different direction. And I think it's left- or right-ish, if you will.


      So you say to yourself, by nature, people want to assimilate or associate with similar types. So if we want a country or a state that believes in small government—whether it's conservative or libertarian or whatever it is—and if you want to live in a state or a country that you believe should be different than that—that has bigger government, social services—now you put a money thing to it. You say, "Well, we have plenty of money to make both sides happy." That's a theory. But, sooner or later, that money runs out if you're running a social welfare state like they want to do in Europe, for example, the European Union—a very different philosophy, very different concepts. And I believe it's based on different types of human instincts. It's like, "I want freedom. I want small government. I don't want a big government." And other people want that. They want a big government that gives them lots of safety and lots of rules and lots of welfare and "I don't want to work hard, and I want a big welfare state." How do you -- so I guess my question is, given your theories in that book, and let's say you have all the money in the world to start out with, but eventually, if you have a country that's built on that welfare concept, you run out of money sooner or later, don't you?


Prof. Ilya Somin:  I think there's sort of three questions there. One is about the impact of immigration on the welfare state. The other is about, you know, maybe people prefer to live with others more like themselves. And then the third is about the European Union as opposed to the U.S. Let's try to answer them in turn.


      On the welfare state, I actually already mentioned that the data actually does not support the notion that places with more immigration have higher welfare spending. Some of the data, particularly for Europe, actually suggests the opposite. Moreover, far from causing the government to run out of money, increased immigration actually increases the money that's available because it creates vast amounts of new wealth for the reasons that I mentioned earlier.


      On the second question about people preferring to live with others like themselves, this is also actually something that I talk about in the book. It's true to some extent. But it's easy to overstate it in that people are not going to, in most cases, want to live in a place that is completely inimical to all of their values. At the same time, a lot of data also indicates that many people actually have a preference for living in locations with a degree of diversity either because they like the diversity for its own sake or because the diversity creates various side effects that like people like, like it creates extra increased wealth, a more vibrant culture, and the like. So a lot of data on migration patterns within the U.S. suggest that localities with greater diversity actually attract migrants more than those that are more homogenous.


      I would add also, by the way, that when we're talking about diversity in the welfare state, other things equal, nations that are more ethnically diverse actually have smaller welfare states because a more homogenous nation -- it's easier to appeal to nationalism and ethnic ties to increase welfare spending, and it's not an action that -- in Europe and, to some extent now, in the U.S. as well, nativist, nationalists also tend to support a bigger welfare state so long as the money goes to what they see as the right kinds of people—so, for instance, native-born, white Frenchman in the case of France.


      So, finally, on the European Union versus the U.S., I certainly don't agree with all of the policies of the European Union. However, the European Union actually is a smaller government than the U.S. is. The U.S. federal government, its federal spending is about 20 percent of GDP, and that's before all the additional spending we did during the pandemic. In Europe, the European Union's central government—to the extent that you can even call it a government—is only about one or two percent of GDP, and its regulatory functions are also much less extensive than those of the U.S. federal government. It still had some perverse and flawed regulations, but the same thing is true of the U.S.


      So what the European Union actually has done is it has created free trade and freedom of movement over a vast territory and enabled more people to vote with their feet. And, therefore, I have some disagreement with the many American libertarians and conservatives who view the European Union negatively. There are definitely negative attributes of it. But from the standpoint of small government and free trade and freedom of movement, the European Union is actually a great achievement. And I would note that one reason why the European Union's central government is relatively small is in part because of Europe's diversity and, therefore, Germans, for example, are reluctant to spend a lot of money to subsidize the Greeks and the like. And, therefore, having a more diverse society is actually very congruent with the objective of limiting government power, if that's what you want to do.


Nicholas Marr:  Okay. We'll go to the next caller.


Caller 2:  Hi. Thank you so much for taking my question. Thank you so much for this teleconference.


      I wanted to ask -- in the book, since you were talking about how individuals and voters will actually have more rights or more freedoms for their votes to impact the government by migration and moving, why did you decide not to do a juxtaposition as opposed to the argument of decentralizing or getting rid of the Electoral College when the common argument about voters' votes not counting the ballot box is because of the Electoral College versus the popular vote. So I kind of want to know why did you decide not to incorporate that into your argument with the foot traffic?


Prof. Ilya Somin:  It's an interesting question. I think the reason why is because getting rid of the Electoral College, that may or may not be a good idea. But I don't think it would much impact the problem I identified.


      Let's say we got rid of the Electoral College and we just had a single, uniform popular vote. Still, the chance of any one vote to make a decisive difference would be very low. It would still be probably about one in a hundred million or so. Granted, people living in non-swing states would have a higher chance than they have now. So if you're a voter in California, whereas currently your chances might be as low as one in one billion, now they might be one in one hundred million. But it would still be extremely low and still nowhere near as good as the odds that you would have in a foot-voting situation. So it may be a good idea to get rid of the Electoral College—I have some very modest sympathies in that direction myself—though there are also counterarguments. It may fix some other kinds of problems, but I don't think it would fix this one.


Nicholas Marr:  All right. It looks like we don't have any other questions at this time.


Prof. John O. McGinnis:  I'll ask one more question if I might then.


Nicholas Marr:  Yeah. Go for it.


Prof. John O. McGinnis:  So one question would be should the government—and I don't remember whether you discussed this in your book—should it be more open to helping people move among states? In other words, one thing you might think is that the federal government, you know, through its tax system, should encourage people -- but, as you point out, the difference between choosing a product -- and if you've got a bad product, that's pretty easy issue to do. Moving from one state to another state has pretty high transaction costs. So should -- as part of a federal system to maximize voting with the feet, would it include actual subsidies, or at least tax preferences for within-country moving?


Prof. Ilya Somin:  Yeah. This is something I do discuss in the book, albeit in a slightly different form than you described it. The issue of whether moves should be subsidized to enable the poor to have more of a chance of moving is tied into the more general issue of how much redistribution there should be. So I try to bracket that in the book somewhat.


      However, there are lots of things that can be done, which I describe in the book, to break down barriers to migration which currently affect people, especially the poor, like exclusionary zoning, occupational licensing, and some others. And those can be broken down or least reduced. That would have the effect both of making it easier for people to move but also wouldn't raise some of the kinds of moral and policy questions that increased redistribution raises. So I would prefer to pursue that path. But if you're more of a redistributionist than I am—which maybe you're not, but a lot of people are—then you might also pursue the subsidies for moving, and that's consistent with my framework, I think, albeit I don't think it's required by it.


Prof. John O. McGinnis:  Thank you.


Nicholas Marr:  All right. There are no more questions currently, so I think we'll wrap it up.


      On behalf of The Federalist Society, I want to thank our experts, John and Ilya, for the benefit of their valuable time and expertise today. We welcome listener feedback by email at [email protected]. Thank you all for joining us. We are adjourned.




Dean Reuter:  Thank you for listening to this episode of Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society's practice groups. For more information about The Federalist Society, the practice groups, and to become a Federalist Society member, please visit our website at