How Federalism Can Empower People to Vote with Their Feet

American state and local government has gotten its share of criticism in recent years, including on this blog. Instead of being “laboratories of democracies,” as Justice Brandeis once famously called them, the states – especially red states – are often seen as agents of “vote suppression,” promoters of dysfunctional policies, and oppressors of women and minorities. In addition, the nationalization of state politics has led to a variety of flaws in state and local elections, including reductions in competitiveness and accountability.

Much of the criticism of states and localities is deserved. But most of the debate over the vitality of American federalism overlooks a crucial way that it can help alleviate our political and economic woes: by providing opportunities for people to “vote with their feet.” Foot voting withing federalism already helps hundreds of thousands of people, every year, choose government policies that better fit their needs, and increase their economic opportunities. Reforms could greatly expand that number. At the very least, foot voting should play a much bigger role in debates over federalism.

Some 3 million Americans make interstate moves per year, and over 30 million move in all. That pace did not slow down even during the Covid pandemic of the last 18 months. Some moves have little or no connection to differences in government policy; for example, many people move to areas with warmer weather or to be close to relatives. But data consistently show that a high percentage are driven by factors such as job opportunities, housing costs, and tax rates, that are heavily influenced by policy. States with low taxes, relatively cheap housing, and flexible labor markets - such as Arizona, Idaho, Texas, and Florida – have consistently been among the leaders in net in-migration in recent decades, while states with the opposite set of policies (most notably, California, New York, and Illinois) have consistently been among the net losers. The presence of California (a loser despite excellent weather) and Idaho (a gainer despite its cold winters) on these lists is a sign that the trends are not primarily about weather.

In my book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, and a recent article in National Affairs, I describe how foot voting is often a better mechanism of political choice than ballot box voting. The key advantage of the latter is that it enables people to make individually decisive choices about the policies they want to live under. A ballot box voter has only an infinitesimally small chance of making a difference to the outcome of an election or of influencing the government policies they have to live under, in other ways. By contrast, a foot voter can have a far more decisive impact on her fate. This far greater impact of foot voting also incentivizes people to acquire greater information about the issues at stake, and to evaluate that information in a more objective, less biased way.

In addition, empowering foot voters can help greatly expand economic and social opportunities for the poor and minorities, This both benefits these groups, and greatly increases economic growth and innovation, to the advantage of society as a whole.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, foot voting opportunities have declined for many Americans, particularly the poor and disadvantaged who need them most. SLOG contributor David Schleicher is among the scholars who have done important work chronicling the causes of this trend, particularly exclusionary zoning, and restrictive occupational licensing laws. Recent evidence suggests that zoning restrictions inhibit mobility and economic growth even more than previously thought, thereby reinforcing the already broad cross-ideological expert agreement on this point.

Some progress in breaking down these barriers has been made over the last several years, including on zoning reform, and occupational licensing, in several states. But much remains to be done on these and other fronts.

Foot voting is also increasingly inhibited by the enormous growth of federal spending and regulation. It is impossible to “vote with your feet” against federal government policies, except through the costly step of leaving the country entirely. Even then, the United States is one of the very few countries that taxes expatriates’ incomes even as they live abroad, and use few or no US government services.

Within states, foot voting can also be enhanced by giving greater autonomy to local governments, and to the private sector. Often, foot voting between localities – and even more so between private-sector organizations, such as private planned communities – is cheaper and easier than that between states. It can also offer a wider range of choices. The US has many thousands of local governments and private communities, but only fifty states.

To their credit, progressive scholars and activists have increasingly recognized the need to reform zoning and licensing laws, and have begun to promote necessary reforms. The nation’s leading political advocate of zoning reform is probably California State Senator Scott Wiener, a progressive Democrat from San Francisco.

But they have been slower to acknowledge the more general case for expanding foot voting opportunities, and how it can provide great benefits to the poor and minorities, two traditional objects of progressive concern. Even as conservatives tout extensive foot voting towards red states such as Texas, liberals have been far more reluctant to make a priority of making blue states more attractive to potential domestic migrants. The fact that leading blue states, most notably California, have been losing people to red and purple states, should lead to some overdue reconsideration of some of the latter’s policies.

And that’s true despite the fact that red states have no shortage of flaws of their own. Progressives can learn some useful lessons from the policies that have made Texas a leading magnet for foot voters, even as they rightly decry such abuses as the SB 8 anti-abortion law, and that state’s political leaders’ reprehensible role in efforts to overturn the 2020 election.