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Foot Voting and Federalism: An Interview with Ilya Somin

Join Ilya Somin and CCS Senior Research Fellow Sam Hill discuss Somin's new book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. This wide-ranging discussion includes a summary of Somin's unique perspective on the benefits of decentralization and the virtues of federalism in the context of COVID-19. 



Sam Hill: Alright. Good afternoon to you, Professor Somin. My name is Samuel Hill. I am the Senior Research Fellow and ambassador at the Federalism Index Project at Utah Valley University's Center for Constitutional Studies. I am joined today by Professor Ilya Somin who is a professor of law at George Mason University. He is proudly well-published and hopefully, some of you have had a chance to read his other works. Recently he published Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, which has been very valuable as the Center has been talking about political ignorance. And then, his most recent book, which is part of why I get to talk to him today, is this one, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. So, Ilya, as you've asked me to call you, welcome!

Ilya Somin: Thank you very much for having me. I'm glad to see you already have a copy of the book.

SH: I do. I admit it's funny in an era of everything being digital, snail mail seems agonizingly slow, but I got it and I really dug into it. It's a wonderful book. What got you onto that book? What was the genesis of this particular book?


IS: I would say maybe two or three things. First, I'd, one, been working on this subject of political ignorance since the 1990s and the problem that most voters have very little incentive to become well informed about politics because the chance that your vote will make a difference is so extremely low in most elections. So, there's very little incentive to become well informed about the issues if your only reason for doing so is to be a better voter.

Secondly, I had done a lot of work in the past on foot voting under federalism, both as a way to mitigate the problem of political ignorance because foot voters have better incentives to acquire relevant knowledge than ballot box voters and because it has other advantages as well in terms of expanding the range of choices for foot voters.

Finally, later in my career beginning around 2008-2009 or so, but building up over time, I came to recognize that if there are important advantages to voting with your feet within federal systems in a single country there are even bigger advantages to doing the same thing across international boundaries where the differences between jurisdictions and the quality of government are vastly greater than any differences between American states. And I also recognize that there was no book, at least not until I wrote one, which combined the issues of domestic foot voting with international foot voting in showing how expanding vote could greatly enhance people's political freedom to mitigate the problem of political ignorance and have numerous other advantages as well. So I thought that there was an obvious opening to someone like me, who started out as a federalism scholar looking at domestic federal systems in foot voting but expanding to look at international migration as well, as opposed to most people who write about international migration and don't write about domestic foot voting and vice versa.


SH: As I read the book, it was very interesting to see that some of these advantages to foot voting conceptually carry across all the different versions of it whether you're internal or international and even what you called, I believe you use the term, economic or civil — where you're not necessarily moving physically but the idea of voting with your wallet. It's switching civic organizations.

IS: Yeah, in some cases you can vote with your feet without physically moving, but the way I define foot voting is not by actual physical movement, though sometimes, of course, there will be physical movement, but rather that you get to make a decision where your individual choice makes a big difference. Unlike an election where, usually, your one vote has only a tiny chance, if that, of making a difference. So, in principle, for instance, you can vote with your feet - not just a principle but in reality, you can vote with your feet — by choosing: to buy a different service in a private sector, by choosing to send your kids to a different school in the same area without physically moving where you live, by joining a different church or synagogue, and so forth.


SH: The meaningful individual choice seems to be a really central concept to this.

IS: Yes, absolutely. I would say that is where the key advantages of voting with your feet reside, at least in my view. In that, when you vote in an election we say, "Well, that's how people exercise their political freedom," but in a presidential election, like the one we're about to have, the average American is maybe about a one in 60 million chance of casting a decisive vote. It's somewhat higher if you live in a swing state, it might be as high as one in one million. If you live in a state that's not a swing state, it might be as low as one in a billion, but even the highest of those numbers are still extremely low.

So we would not say that you have, for instance, meaningful religious freedom if you have only a one in a million chance of being able to determine what faith you will practice or whether you'll practice one at all. You wouldn't say you have meaningful freedom of speech if you only have a one in one million chance of being able to decide what opinions you are allowed to express. And similarly, I would say that a form of political freedom where you only have a one in one million chance or one in 60 million chance, or whatever it is, of determining what policies you get to live under, that's not much of a meaningful freedom at all. On the other hand, expanding people's opportunity to vote with their feet offers meaningful choices that actually matter. In many cases, it can vastly transform people's lives for the better.


SH: You talk about the concept of exit and I thought it was particularly relevant when you were talking about the different aspects, the concepts, that sort of build-up of political freedom, and how in democracies we often think of consent whether it's 'I moved here intentionally or I just live here and I haven't chosen to leave here'. This idea of consent means the government can kind of do whatever it wants because it's been legitimized and you really seem to argue that that shouldn't be the case, which, I gotta be honest, I think democracy like advocates will think that that's a bit of a radical idea, but at the same time you point out that the ability to leave - just the ability to leave, not actually leaving, but just having the ability to leave - enhances that sort of legitimacy.


IS: So I'm far from the first person to point out that if you believe that consent is what legitimizes government then democracy is not by itself enough to get you much in the way of meaningful consent. One reason why it's not, is the one I pointed to you earlier, that the average person has only an infinitesimally chance of influencing any kind of political outcome in a democracy. The second reason which I discuss in the book and elsewhere is that before you can have any kind of democratic voting, somebody has to set up the procedures that determine what the rules of voting will be, who gets to vote, who are the relevant people or citizens who get to participate, and so forth. None of that can ultimately itself be done democratically as again, we can't do anything democratically until the democratic system of voting has actually been set up.

So, from the standpoint of consent theory, democracy has many different limitations. I don't claim that expanding opportunities to vote with your feet can completely overcome all those problems, but it can mitigate them significantly because if you have strong exit rights by potentially being able to move to another jurisdiction or by being able to handle your affairs in a private sector, rather than under the control of the government. Then, it's much more meaningful to say you had a real opportunity to say yes or no to the government's authority than if your only recourse is to participate in an election where you had no ability to say yes or no to the rules of that election and when you participate you have only a one in a million, or even in a small town a one in a thousand chance, of determining the outcome.

There is more that could be said about these points but I think many of the points I make about democracy not being really consensual and while they're radical in one sense there's a law and tradition of political theorists and scholars who have pointed out the weaknesses of the argument that merely having an opportunity to vote means that you meaningfully consented to the policies in question. That doesn't mean that voting is bad or that we should abolish democracy in favor of authoritarianism. I don't believe in either of those oppositions. Rather, what I think, is that if we want to have a more consensual political system, we need to augment democracy with much stronger opportunities for people to vote with their feet.


SH: This I think leads us very nicely into, you know, the federalism aspect of this. You make a pretty strong assertion in the book that federalism is a very beneficial constitutional structure, a societal structure, for foot voting, and vice versa. Foot voting is beneficial to federalism.

IS: I don't claim that federalism is in all circumstances good for foot voting or that foot voting is in all circumstances good for federalism much depends just on what kind of system of federalism it is. There are federal systems, historically, where foot voting was severely constrained because people were either not allowed to leave a particular jurisdiction or not allowed to enter or both.

In American history, obviously, the system of slavery was the most extreme example where slaves by definition were not allowed to leave, and not only that, but some states had policies excluding even free blacks from settling. So you can imagine and there have historically been federal structures which were very bad for foot voting and you can certainly imagine in some cases state or local governments not liking the ability to move. And if you believe — if you identify federalism with the interest of sub-national governance, those interests are not always served by foot voting.

That said, if you have a system of decentralized power whether it's lots of options and in addition, you also have a right of mobility where states and localities cannot prevent people from leaving and also, at least in the vast majority of cases, cannot block entry either then you do indeed have a beneficial dynamic where there are many foot voting opportunities. Also, states and localities can be incentivized to adopt policies that seem to attract potential foot voters. That's particularly true if they have to raise a large part of their tax revenue from their own citizens as opposed to relying on subsidies from the central government that gives them an incentive to try and attract people and also to keep them from leaving. In the book, I also address arguments that claim 'well this would result in a race to the bottom' or that 'they would only want to attract the wealthy' or things like that. I think these are real concerns but they are greatly overblown and there are ways to further administer force.


SH: I find that I am actually a beneficiary of this idea of having a locality where you choose to be different. Where I live in Utah it is just south of a big college area but we are one of the few towns that have chosen, very conscientiously, to remain more rural, more small-town feeling, as opposed to the rest of the cities in this area. And it's very interesting because there's this big boom going on right now — and this can kind of go to your discussion about areas of competition — where Utah Valley is building up what we're calling Silicon Slopes. It's supposed to be this big new tech hub up here in the north and everyone is sort of rushing in that direction in terms of policies, in terms of growth and meanwhile down here at the south end of the valley, the city where I live, is just sort of like "Nope. We're gonna stay this way" and hopefully attract the kind of people who do want to live in this sort of a thing, even as the guys next door have decided, "No. We're gonna rush headlong in this other direction" and of course, they're attracted to a very different set of growth, of a different set of residences and businesses. So, I really found that a very compelling argument as I was reading because if all of us here just had to live under one thing, well, we'd all be living under this growth mentality — this modernization mentality — and I don't have to do that, thankfully.


IS: One of the advantages of having a diversity of options is, in fact, that they can be diverse and occupy differing kinds of market niches. Just as in the private sector, you know, we have many different types of cars, for example, for many different types of consumers. You know, I have an SUV because I'm not interested in having a flashy car and I need it to transport my kids and our dog and so forth. Somebody else would have a very different kind of car that better fits their needs. The same can be said, to some degree at least, for different types of local governments and even more so for private claimed communities, which are another option I described in the book. There can be even more of those in a given area than local governments and they're often more flexible and offer better quality. Public service is among various kinds that many local governments do.

In the book, I note how 70 million Americans already availed themselves to diversity and services offered by private planned communities and I note some reforms that can be adopted to make this form an organization more available to more people, particularly those who are relatively poor. It is already the case, it is just not true that it's only available to the wealthy, unless you believe we have 70 million wealthy people in the current United States, but it can be made more available to a wider range of people. And more generally there are reforms we can adopt that can make inter-jurisdictional competition and movement more feasible for more people in both the public and private sectors and I discuss some of those in the book as well.


SH: I can't help but observe as I watch our country, and I watch the discussions in our country, that there is a sort of a schizophrenia to our discussions where, on one hand, we articulate diversity as this almost universal good in some voices, but then, on the other hand, there is this push to make policies and responses really rigidly uniform. And I don't know if these two things can be reconciled really efficiently, especially with this idea to make everything the same on the policy. But you sort of articulate that there are inequalities and there are unavoidable inequalities and that that's a good thing.


IS: I think some inequalities are a good thing. That said, as I note throughout the book, expanding opportunities for people to vote with their feet — while it can be beneficial for people in a wide range of income classes and circumstances — it's particularly beneficial for the poor and disadvantaged. Historically, that's how the poor and disadvantaged within the United States have often found job opportunities and also escape various kinds of oppression.

The state of Utah is, of course, historically an example of both. It was founded by Mormons escaping oppression in eastern states and over time it has also provided a lot of opportunities for people of different backgrounds who may not have found it elsewhere. If you look at international migration this is even clearer. The United States and also countries like Canada, Australia and others were populated primarily not by people who were very wealthy and were seeking better investment opportunities or something, but by people who were poor and also often oppressed in their countries of origin. That's true for me being from the Soviet Union, originally, but it's also true for many millions of other people.

So if we expand opportunities for both domestic foot voting and international migration. We also will simultaneously reduce some of the most severe inequalities in the world. Both inequalities of income but also inequalities in the sense that many people are in situations where they are oppressed in various ways based on race or gender or religion or other kinds of characteristics. Foot voting can't fully solve all of those problems but it can enormously mitigate them in an expansion of foot voting opportunities. It might be able to do more to address these issues than almost any other policy change that we can hope to adopt in the near future.


In the book, I quote the great economist Robert Lucas who said that "Once you start thinking about economic growth it's hard to think about anything else" because even a modest increase in year-to-year economic growth can gradually accumulate over time such that a society becomes wealthier after a period of 10 or 20 years. I feel the same way about voting with your feet and migration. Once you start looking at the enormous benefits that come from a poor or oppressed person being able to move from where they're in that condition to a jurisdiction with better opportunities and a less oppressive government and when you multiply that out over many millions of people and then compound the effects as those people become more productive and successful in their new destination — it's hard to think of anything else. Well, I do think about other things but it's hard to think of anything else when you see that.

Economists estimate that if we had free migration throughout the world that would double the GDP of the world. That is, it would double the wealth because so many people would be able to move to places where they would be more productive. If we eliminated just zoning restrictions, that currently price out many people out of some of the more desirable places to live in the United States, economists estimate we could increase American GDP by something like 9 or 10 percent which is a tremendous gain in wealth, which would go to society as a whole. But it would disproportionately benefit the poor and disadvantaged, both the white working class, that we have heard a lot about in the age of Trump, but also minorities currently trapped in bad innercity neighborhoods and elsewhere. And that's not even accounting for the vast non-economic benefits of expanding your horizons, people escaping oppression, and so forth.


SH: Why do you think, then, that some people view the ability to move as a purview of the wealthier? Cause you point out, and I agree, that if you have nothing you have very little to lose and it's very easy to pick up. Why do you think that people say "Oh no! You can't do that. You can't just up and move anymore"?

IS: I think there are several reasons. One is that many people as with a lot of other political issues have, for perfectly understandable reasons, not thought this one through — not because they're stupid, but because they're focused on other issues. As I mentioned earlier there's not much incentive to think about this carefully so if you haven't thought it through then it seems intuitive — well it's easier to move if you can easily afford a plane ticket or to hire movers to take your stuff and so a wealthy person can more easily afford those costs than a poor person and that's probably true. I don't deny that.

However, what they fail to see is that a poor person often has much more to gain from making the move and that the physical costs of moving, even for the poor, are often relatively low compared to the vast gains that can be made and they can be made lower still if we were to break down various barriers to movement like zoning and licensing restrictions. Or, of course in the area of international migration, if we could break down the laws that governments like the US and others have that block a very high percentage of potential migrants from being able to enter in the first place.

A second reason why people might think that is because there really are some genuine barriers to movement by the poor. I mentioned zoning and licensing within the United States and migration restrictions that block immigration from abroad, but those barriers are not inherent, unavoidable aspects of the world they're the results of government and policies that can be changed. And even an incremental reduction of these barriers could create vast gains. It wouldn't go as far as I would like. I would like to eliminate these barriers almost entirely, but even if you say you reduce them by 10 percent that's still many millions of people who have access to far greater freedom and opportunity than they would have otherwise, and mostly gainers would be relatively poor people as opposed to the wealthy.


SH: So one short question and one longer question. So, in terms of just not thinking about this, is this just a case of rational ignorance where I don't need to think about that so I'm not going to think about it carefully?

IS: Partly it is rational ignorance. As I wrote in my previous book, which you mentioned Democracy and Political Ignorance, most people have only limited time. They don't necessarily find government policy interesting in the way that you and I do. They have kids to raise, jobs to do, mortgages to pay, and so on and so forth. So it's understandable that they devote only a small percentage of their time to public policy issues where the chance that their vote will make a difference is very small. That affects immigration, but it also affects attitudes towards things like zoning and licensing, which many people don't even know that that's why housing costs are so high. That's why so many people are blocked off from opportunity.

But in addition to just simple ignorance, there is also bias and for many people, it's intuitive to think that the world is in a zero-sum game. If immigrants come in and increase their income that must be at the cost of native-born Americans. If somebody moves to California from Texas, or vice versa, and buys a house or rents an apartment or something that must mean that that has to reduce the housing stock for natives. And there's a particular tendency to think in terms of zero-sum games when we're thinking of people who are different from us, whether culturally or racially or in some cases even just people who move from another state. You have to learn at least some basic economics or think about it some more to realize that often it's not a zero-sum game. Like yes, if an immigrant law professor comes in and starts competing with me for potential jobs, if you isolate just that narrow instance, that's probably bad for me, but on the other hand, immigrants coming doing lots of other jobs provide products that we otherwise wouldn't have or at least provide at a higher quality or a lower price.

In addition, by making society as a whole wealthier and founding new businesses and the like, they also make me better off in ways that are hard to trace. They also, a lot of data suggests, provide additional employment opportunities and other goods for native-born Americans and the same thing is true for interstate and inter-jurisdictional migration. Domestically, the vast new wealth that I mentioned could be created by freeing up migration. Obviously, some of that, a lot of it, would go to the immigrants themselves but a lot of it would go to the natives who buy the things they produce, benefit from the innovations they make, work for the businesses they create, and so on.


SH: You see that takes us to my second question. You point out that there's — and this applies both internationally and internationally between jurisdictions — that often times its zoning laws or licensure issues. Utah is by all reputation particularly egregious about this. We have an extraordinary amount of licensure restrictions to being a hairdresser or the one where they shape your eyebrows, where they require almost as much training as like an EMT and these are barriers. And while you do point out that we need some barriers, to maintain that diversity, there are so many that could go wayward. Where do you see the most benefit happening in terms of policy changes or things that a state could say adopt to make this work for them if nothing else?

IS: If we're looking at internally within the US, in many states the one thing that they must do to expand foot voting opportunities — both for people coming into the state, but often even for people who already live there but are trapped in bad locations — is to reduce zoning barriers to housing construction. In many places, particularly on the east and west coast, but sometimes even in interior states including, I think, even in parts of Utah, there are severe restrictions on what kind of housing can be built where. As a result, there are many places where great employment opportunities, great social opportunities of various kinds, but many people can't take advantage of them because it's quite literally almost impossible to build new housing in responsive demands. As a result, there's only a very limited amount of housing and a price that is extremely high as you see in Silicon Valley, New York City, in many places around the country.

Economists estimate that if we took some of the most restrictive cities and not even eliminated zoning entirely, but simply reduce it to the national average level of zoning — which I think is still too high — but that alone would enable hundreds of thousands or millions of people to move to these areas, get better job opportunities, be more productive and so forth. Imagine a much higher percentage of minorities trapped in bad inner-city situations or the white-working class trapped in places like Appalachia waiting for Donald Trump or somebody else to try to make the coal industry great again, or to restore manufacturing employment to what it was in the 1950s, or something — that's not going to happen most likely, but what can happen is to create opportunities for these people or at least many more of them to move to locations where the jobs are, where they can earn more and also, in various ways, expand their cultural and social horizons as well.


SH: As I mentioned before the interview started, I'm actually a product of a number of things that you're describing. So I am a member of the Latter-day Saint faith and you can actually still, if you can find the maps, find my great-great-great, add a few more greats, grandfather's plot there. They went west to escape persecution. On the other side, we had my grandmother who moved from Appalachia. I believe it was during the dust bowl roughly because even then there was little opportunity and California simply was a much better option. And Mexico, the other side of my family, we came from Mexico and all for these very different reasons. We didn't have to wait for somebody to make it better for us. We just said, "You know what? It's better over there. We're out." Watching you compare your life to — there was somebody you talked about in the book whose name escapes me at the moment — where, you know, you both grow up in what started roughly in the same place but you had the benefit of having come to America in your youth and they did not.


IS: Yeah, so I'm originally, as I mentioned before, from the Soviet Union. When I compare my life to that of people of the same age who stayed in what is now Russia, obviously, rather than the Soviet Union. Obviously, on the whole, I am much freer and wealthier than they are but it's not because of any great merit of mine — it's the difference between the United States and Russia. Russia today, while less bad than the Soviet Union, is still in many ways an oppressive and corrupt society where it's very difficult for people to get ahead economically — easier than in the Soviet Union, but still very difficult — and also, obviously, very difficult for people to speak freely in ways that the government disapproves of. Again, not as much so when under the Soviet Union, but the regime of Vladimir Putin can still be very brutal to its critics as we just saw recently with the leading opposition leader Alexei Navalny probably being poisoned at the government's behest. So often what determines how our lives turn out is less any merit of ours but then the opportunity we have to live in a particular location. I think what we should want to see is for more people to have the opportunity to live in places where there's greater freedom and a greater chance to advance economically as well.


SH: So a lot of our discussion has, so far today, talked about economic benefits and how that's beneficial. You point out that critics say, "Well that's an economic thing, it's not a political thing," but economic decisions are often heavily laden with political undertones and many political decisions boil down to an economic decision that, in my opinion, just happens to be on the ballots I'm voting on. Why do you think people try and put this hard wall between the political and the economical? What do you think we can do to maybe pull those barriers down some?

IS: I don't know if everybody does that, but I think a lot of people do recognize that a lot of ballot box voting is motivated by economic concerns. Incumbent politicians are much more likely to be re-elected if the economy is doing well or to be defeated if it's doing poorly, for example. Nonetheless, some people do say that voting with your feet is not really a political decision; it's motivated by economic concerns about things like housing and jobs. And in the book, I point out three responses to this argument.

First, many seemingly economic factors are in fact heavily influenced by government policy. I mentioned already the difference between Russia and the US but less traumatically, but still significantly, there are differences in economic circumstances between the American cities and states, which also are at least in significant parts due to differences in government policy.

Secondly, foot voting decisions are not solely motivated by purely narrowly economic considerations. Often, people vote with their feet also to escape various kinds of political oppression and I mentioned many examples of that — people fleeing racial or ethnic or gender-based oppression, people seeking freedom of religion. And there are many examples like this that we can give: the migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South was certainly a considerable part driven by the racial oppression there; the movement of gays and lesbians to areas that are more tolerant to the LGBTQ community is another example and there are many others that can be given.

Third, if you really want to argue what's not a true political decision, if it's motivated by economic concerns in some narrow sense of the word then you would have to devalue a great deal of ballot box voting as well where economic factors often drive decisions very heavily. I mention the state of the economy playing a big role in electoral decisions, but also the costs of various goods sometimes play a big role as well. So, if you really want to apply the standard consistently then you would have to say that a great deal of ballot box voting also doesn't qualify.


SH: Can we get a little more detail to talk about how foot voting encourages you to be more informed — not just generally, but about the politics that really happen where you live.

IS: So I don't contend that foot voting encourages people, necessarily, to learn the kind of information that would make them more knowledgeable about ballot box voting — that is learning how the different branches of government function and which officials are responsible for which issues and so forth. What I do contend is that foot voting encourages people to be more knowledgeable about the kinds of issues that are relevant to foot voting decisions than ballot box voting incentivizes people to be knowledgeable about the kind of information that's relevant to those decisions.

So when you're deciding about a foot voting issue, you may not study carefully which government official has been doing a good job or a bad job, but you will look at economic conditions in that community, you'll look at the quality of public services, the level of crime and various other issues that are relevant to a decision. You also try to compare them in a reasonable way to other jurisdictions which are alternatives, or at least potential alternatives, and you will try to be more unbiased in making those comparisons than people generally are when they compare political candidates.

Often there's a lot of data that shows that they are highly biased in that, if you're a partisan Republican you will tend to ignore or devalue any information that cuts against that party, and if you're a partisan Democrat you will tend to have the opposite sort of bias. Whereas when people decide where they're going to live or what products they're going to buy in the private sector, or what school they're going to send their kids to and the like — they certainly are not completely free of bias, but they do make decisions in a more objective way and they seek out more relevant information.

So my claim is not that foot voting will encourage people to learn about the separation of powers or federalism, an institution or the like, but it will encourage them to be better informed about the decisions that they actually face with respect to where to live, what services they get and so forth, relative to the amount of information ballot box voters tend to have about the decisions they face as the ballot box.


SH: One last thing then we'll kind of move to our sort of closing remarks. You point out, and this is federalism heavy because we're federalism here, that there are some limits on what sub-national entities can do and I imagine that you could also say the same thing to smaller nations when the issue is sufficiently large or even say a United States, China or the USSR would have a hard time addressing this alone. Do you see any areas where sub-national entities, or perhaps smaller nations, are trying to make a mark or to take some control, or maybe they should back off?

IS: So an obvious example, both with smaller nations and larger nations, is actually that many of them have severe migration restrictions which inhibit foot voting and does undermine the entire dynamic that is the focus of my book, and that we've been talking about, and also, of course, many nations both large and small have various obstacles to internal migration as well. In some cases, very severe ones like the ones that exist to a degree in China and some places in India as well.

But I think your question also goes to another issue that there might be — not just that there might be but there probably are some problems that are so large scale that no sub-national government can hope to address them by itself. Perhaps the Coronavirus crisis is an example or something like global warming is an even better example. Therefore, if they're going to be addressed at all, some aspects have to be addressed by the national government. I stress only some, cause I've written in a piece in USA Today there are actually many aspects of the pandemic that might be better addressed in a more local way or even by a private sector, but there are admittedly are some aspects, like developing a vaccine, that must be used in the entire world that are better addressed in the larger scale.

Therefore we cannot completely dispense with large scale political organization. In some instances, we even need international cooperation as we do with climate change. That said, if you look around the world, many of the best governing countries that are most successful in various measures are relatively small: Denmark, Switzerland, New Zealand, and others. So it's hard to argue that size is a big advantage at least for most issues and that suggests also that we can decentralize more issues within the US also. Many of our states are the size of Switzerland or even bigger. So Switzerland can have its own education policy, its own retirement policy, its own health care policy. There's no reason why Virginia, which is roughly the same size population-wise, can't or many other states.

Moreover, even with respect to things that really aren't large scale like global warming, as I discuss in the book, the extra wealth generated by foot voting and migration can help us address them. There's lots of evidence in this section about town voting which shows that wealthier societies are better able to address a wide range of environmental problems, both local and more regional or international scale, than societies which are poor. Expanding foot voting opportunities can make a society wealthier and make the whole world wealthier, which in turn enables us to better address things like global warming, but also, although my book was finished before COVID, things like the pandemic. There's lots of evidence that wealthier societies have better health care outcomes and can more quickly develop vaccines and other things. I would note that in the US and in Europe, a high percentage of the scientists working on the vaccine and other medical issues are in fact recent immigrants or children of immigrants. If we didn't have them, our chances of producing a vaccine quickly and producing treatments for the disease would be much lower than they otherwise are.


SH: You also made me think a little bit about the issue of redistribution. You talk about somethings should be redistributed or if there needs to be redistribution it should be a local level, but then there are somethings where your outcomes simply will be better coming from the central organizing authority. Coronavirus has really, really made us ask a lot of these questions. What did Donald Trump do? What did Governor Cuomo do? What did my local city do with mask mandates? So there's controls and the need to be in the central. There are controls that more appropriately need to be in the state or region and then there are the things that should be here in the locality. As you point out it seems like lower down on the scale of size and structure, we're a lot more capable than people actually think cause we like to keep shoving it back up to the federal or to the central.


IS: So obviously, the issue of how to deal with the Coronavirus crisis can itself be a separate discussion. There's no way it can do justice to the topic in the short time we have and some aspects obviously may lead to epidemiological expertise that I simply don't have. For now, I'll only say that if you look at international comparisons it doesn't seem like those countries which had the most centralized policies or the most severe centralized lockdowns in the like, have done better on average than those countries which have not.

The US has clearly in many ways done a poor job addressing the Coronavirus crisis and some of that is definitely due to the flaws of Donald Trump and the federal government's response and some was actually may be due to over-centralization such as the CDC preventing people from independently developing Coronavirus tests early on and then failing to produce a workable test itself. Whereas some countries like Germany, which have a more decentralized testing system, were able to test much more effectively and limit outbreaks. If you look in Europe, countries which had very severe nationwide lockdowns some of them even have higher death rates than the US. That doesn't necessarily mean that their policies were wrong or ours were good. You have to control for a lot of other factors as well, but I do think that at the very least it's far from clear that greater decentralization or greater centralization has made nations more able to resist the Coronavirus pandemic.

In some instances, including in the US, it may have done even considerable harm as it clearly did on the testing front in this country. You can argue, obviously, about other issues so it is not my view that nothing should be centralized about the Coronavirus response. I think national governments and even national governmental cooperation can, and to some extent, have played a valuable role in speeding along its development of a vaccine, and hopefully when we have one they can play a role in distributing it throughout the world as quickly as possible. But there are other respects, such as very crude nationwide lockdowns and the like, where I'm far from certain that a highly centralized response is desirable.


SH: I think of just rolling dice in statistics and how the description that you've given involving the devolution of a number of things that are currently more centralized, would just be the difference between putting your fate on one dice roll as opposed to putting your fate on 89,000 dice rolls as the case of the localities and governments in the US. It's a balancing act, I suppose. We can definitely do better.

IS: Yeah I think the one thing we can all agree about the Coronavirus crisis is that there are many ways we could do better. While I think the federal government made lots of errors it's also true that a number of states and localities have sometimes made bad decisions as well. There is a risk, obviously, of one state doing badly and therefore causing it to spread to another one. But the data on this also suggests that it's far from clear that travel restrictions actually do much to prevent the spread and that there may be other more targeted ways that are more effective.

So again, much more can be said about this and I don't claim to be an expert on all aspects. All I will claim, for now, is that I don't think the greatest centralization is always the right answer and I think when it comes to Coronavirus both international and internal migration there are better ways to control the spread than by simply shutting it down, which is what we've done to a large extent. I think very wrongly for international migration on the internal side we haven't gone nearly as far, but I think there are probably some state governments that have probably gone too far in imposing mandatory quarantines and everybody who enters from a particular state for 14 days and like. I think that might be, at least in many cases, excessive.


SH: Yeah. Well, Ilya thank you so much. I really have appreciated our time together today.

IS: You gave great questions.

SH: Thank you. So everybody who's out there watching this: Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, I would encourage you to get it if you are inclined to find out more about the benefits of people being able to move between places. Thank you, Professor Ilya Somin.

IS: Thank you very much for having me.


ILYA SOMIN is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, democratic theory, federalism, and migration rights.  He is the author ofFree to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom(Oxford University Press, 2020),Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter(Stanford University Press, revised and expanded second edition, 2016), and The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain(University of Chicago Press, 2015, rev. paperback ed., 2016).

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