Voting With Your Feet

From the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy at Volokh, George Mason’s own Ilya Somin shares a personal account of how moving with one’s feet is easier for those without a lot of accumulated wealth:

[T]he much greater difficult of moving when you own a lot of stuff is an additional reason why voting with your feet is often easier for the poor. My experience is far from unique.Studies by economists find that homeownership (a proxy for wealth and possessions), tends to reduce labor mobility significantly. Another way of putting it is that the relatively high moving costs faced by the affluent make it less likely that they will move to a different jurisdiction to take advantage of its superior policies, unless the superiority is very great. The poor, by contrast, can often move to exploit relatively smaller interjurisdictional differences.

Personal stories offer some great illustration, but Somin’s account made me wonder whether it is the poor who vote with their feet.

After all, by definition poor folks are the ones who bear the brunt of unjust social policies.  Wealthy people don’t need to vote with their feet, because they can travel.  When health care grows scarce in a wealthy person’s country, she travels to find services abroad.  Injustices like gun bans don’t bother wealthy people as much, because they have doormen and can afford to live in safe neighborhoods.

Prof. Somin suggests that the “foot voting” phenomenon comes into play at the “home-buying” stage, that stage of affluence without roots.  It’s one thing to talk about moving from representation-bereft DC to the open-carry friendly, tobacco-smoker inviting Commonwealth, but leaving real injustice requires something more than a dash of get-up-and-go.

I have a skewed perspective.  My displaced friends are the Cubans whose parents left in the ’60’s, Jews whose grandparents recall the “Old Country,” and a handful of Caucasian-mutt Europeans with ancient memories of Ellis Island.  Both of the former categories consist of wealthy folks who realize that it is their right to leave when the government establishes its pattern of abuses rather than waiting til Despotism becomes entrenched.

Only that hopeful bunch concerned primarily with providing for their children represent the huddled masses voting with their feet for the American Dream.

I can imagine easy arguments for both sides.  It makes sense that unjust policies disproportionately affect the poor, and that the poor have less to lose by leaving.  Anecdotally the opposite seems true: The wealthy tend to leave, because they are more educated, more savvy, and :- more aware of the signs that their country is going in the wrong direction.  Functionally the effect of “self-imposed exile” is that the middle class wanes while thick upper- and lower-classes dominate the remaining population.  Yet it is never the middle class who leaves.

Economists rely on the idea that people will inevitably send a signal to wrongheaded governments when unhappy citizens simply go.  This works at the margin, but in practice it seems that foot-voting better resembles cultural evolution than representation.  When the only folks who can afford to leave are the same sophisticated few aware of greener pastures, that less educated, older demographic left behind bears the brunt of regimes rarely dissuaded by a mobile citizenry.

Unfortunately I’m not as curious about this as I am about Tax Law, but I’d love to see some studies showing who leaves and when they go — and how long until that signal effects change in the old country’s policies.

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Filed under Economics, Liberty

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