Why Digital Exit Rights Are Not Enough: The Case for Expanding Foot Voting in Real Space

Adam Thierer’s lead essay is an excellent discussion of how the digital age has created important and valuable new exit rights. Online firms such as Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb have expanded consumer options in ways few imagined before the rise of the internet. In this respect, the digital age has strengthened the power of exit beyond what Albert Hirschman might have expected when Exit, Voice, and Loyalty was first published fifty years ago.

But appreciation for the benefits of digital exit should not be allowed to obscure the importance of exit rights in physical space, which is where all of us still live. No technological innovation provides an adequate substitute for the power to “vote with your feet” by choosing where to live and work. That is particularly true for the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people, many of whom are trapped under the rule of oppressive and corrupt regimes. While digital exit rights have improved in recent years, foot voting options have all too often been diminished.

Technological innovation has empowered many people to obtain a variety of goods and services online, and subjected entrenched incumbents in various industries to increased competition. Consider how Amazon has successfully competed with bookstores and other brick and mortar businesses, or Uber with traditional taxis.

But these valuable innovations should not obscure the continuing importance of physical freedom of movement. For the vast majority of people, where you are allowed to live still determines how much freedom you have, whether you are subject to a variety of forms of oppression, and what employment and educational opportunities are open to you.

Foot Voting and Economic Productivity

During the coronavirus crisis, many of us have seen how remote work is more feasible than ever before in human history. In principle, a lawyer, accountant, or IT specialist can work for a New York firm even as she lives in Wichita and takes advantage of the lower taxes and housing prices in the latter location. But that should not blind us to the fact the vast majority of people—including those who work in services, manufacturing, and agriculture, among other fields—still need to live near where they work. Even many high-skill white collar workers are more productive when able to interact in person with colleagues and customers. The painful experience of online education during the pandemic has revealed how it is often a poor substitute for in-person teaching, especially when it comes to serving the needs of the youngest and most at-risk students.

For these and other reasons, there are still enormous “place premiums” that enable workers to be vastly more productive in some locations than others. In some ways, technological innovation has actually increased those premiums by increasing the relative advantages of more productive regions that do better at fostering new innovations. A scientist or computer programmer can be more productive in Silicon Valley than in Montana or Mississippi. The gap between her potential productivity in the United States as opposed to, say, Haiti, is even greater.

If we want to capture the full benefit of place premiums, we must work to break down barriers to mobility. People need stronger exit rights to be able to move from areas where poor institutions prevent them from being productive and often trap them in poverty.

Economists estimate that free migration throughout the world would roughly double world GDP, with massive increases in wealth for both migrants and natives. The reason is that there are so many millions of people trapped in societies where—no matter how talented and hard-working they might be—oppressive and corrupt government policies make it virtually impossible for them to ever escape poverty. But even if opening the borders would increase the world’s wealth by “only” 25% or 50%, it would still be an enormous gain, far beyond anything that could be achieved by virtually any other conceivable policy change. Within the United States, we can increase GDP by a whopping 9% or more if we break down barriers to mobility erected by exclusionary zoning and occupational licensing laws.

How Exit Rights Expand Liberty

The potential gains from expanding exit rights go far beyond the narrowly economic. They encompass vast increases in human freedom and well-being of all kinds. Consider such examples as refugees fleeing racial, ethnic, and religious oppression, women escaping patriarchal societies, Uighurs fleeing incarceration in brutal Chinese concentration camps, and residents of Hong Kong seeking refuge from increasing repression. For millions of people, the opportunity to vote with their feet through international migration is literally a matter of life and death.

For the roughly one-third of the world’s population who live under authoritarian regimes, exit through international migration is likely their only hope of exercising any political choice of any kind. Things are often only modestly better for the 1.8 billion people who live in societies that Freedom House classifies as “partly free,” meaning they have very weak democratic institutions. Most of the people in these two categories don’t even have the extremely limited version of voice offered by ballot-box voting.

Things are less dire within the United States and other liberal democracies. Nonetheless, breaking down barriers to mobility is crucial to increasing both opportunity and political choice, especially for poor people and minorities trapped in areas where serious misgovernment ensures they otherwise have little chance to better their lot. The story of J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, is that of a man whose life was transformed because he was able to move to areas that offered greater opportunity than the dysfunctional community where he grew up . We need to make such opportunities available to many more people.

For all these problems, there is no purely technological solution. There is no substitute for exit rights through physical freedom of movement.

In addition to expanding the freedom of migrants, exit rights also boost that of natives. They do so by empowering the latter to interact with the former by working with them, engaging in cultural and civil society projects, and interacting a wide range of other ways. Breaking down barriers to migration can also help free natives from the many ways in which immigration enforcement threatens their civil liberties.

Does Exit Undermine Voice?

While recognizing the importance of exit rights, Hirschman also worried that they might undermine the effective use of “voice” through the political process. That is because those individuals most likely to use voice effectively to promote needed reforms may instead exit the system. Thus, if school choice enables the most dissatisfied parents to shift their kids to other schools, there will be less pressure to reform the public schools they leave behind, where other students will continue to languish.

It is important to recognize that Hirschman’s argument applies only in a narrow range of circumstances. In order for it to hold true, a subset of participants in a political institution must 1) be able to force through effective reforms where the others could not impose the reforms in their absence; 2) prefer to exit rather than exercise voice despite the likelihood that their use of voice will be successful; and 3) possess exit options that are not available to the others. If 1 holds true, it is hard to see why 2 would, since these individuals could instead get what they want without moving. The more foot voting opportunities become available to everyone, the more the third precondition is weakened

Even if all three preconditions are met, foot voting by even some participants could give policymakers an incentive to enact needed reforms of their own accord in order to retain tax revenue from those who might exit. This seems to have occurred when it comes to the paradigm case that gave rise to Hirschman’s theory: school vouchers that give parents funds to transfer their kids to better-performing schools (45-46, 51-52). Peer-reviewed studies of the effects of vouchers find that they actually improve the quality of public schools “left behind” by those who exit. By contrast, simply increasing funds for traditional public schools without expanding exit rights has little or no educational benefit.

In some ways, the ability to exit might even facilitate investment in “voice” rather than undermine it. Exit enables foot voters to move to jurisdictions that fit their needs and preferences better than their original homes. The new home, presumably, is one they value more. And the more one values a resource, the more likely they are to invest in its maintenance and potential improvement.

To make an admittedly oversimplified analogy, the ability to freely choose a marriage partner does not necessarily lead to lower investment in the marriage than a system under which marriages are forcibly arranged by parents or by the state. Freedom of choice increases the likelihood that you can find a partner who is genuinely compatible with you. The resulting relationship is thereby one you would make more effort to maintain.

Despite his reservations about some aspects of exit rights, Hirschman pointed out that “[t]he United States owes its very existence and growth to millions of decisions favoring exit over voice” (106). In addition to the choices made by so many immigrants from abroad, he also noted the role of internal foot voting (107-08). Today, unfortunately, this heritage has been compromised by the most severe immigration restrictions in American history—adopted on the pretext of combating the coronavirus pandemic, by an administration that in fact seeks to extend them indefinitely. It is also endangered by restrictive zoning and other barriers to internal mobility. If not reversed, these trends will also endanger the innovation lauded by Thierer, since both international and internal migrants are major contributors to technological and commercial innovation.

As we cope with the coronavirus crisis and associated economic damage, America needs innovation and growth as much as ever. And millions of people around the world desperately need greater freedom and opportunity. We can achieve both by empowering more people to use exit rights to vote with their feet.

Ilya Somin is professor of law at George Mason University and the author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2020), from which parts of this essay are adapted, and Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter (Stanford University Press, 2nd ed. 2016).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Adam Thierer argues that innovation can help dissatisfied customers—or citizens—in two ways. First, it offers an “exit” from unsatisfactory services in either the private or public sector. And second, this strengthened form of “exit” lends its power to individuals’ “voice” as well; when disgruntled consumers can easily leave, their threats to do so mean a lot more.

Response Essays

  • Mikayla Novak uses Albert O. Hirschman’s concepts of exit, voice, and loyalty to analyze Black Lives Matter as a social movement. She finds it a productive tool for thinking about current events and argues that Hirschman’s book holds up well even in an era of digital discontent, one quite different from the book’s own time.

  • Ilya Somin acknowledges that the digital ability to “exit” a bad governance or consumer situation is good as far as it goes, but that for some cases, it’s never going to be enough. A political or religious refugee commonly gains safety only through physically fleeing their oppressors, who control the government where they live. And even those who leave an area merely for better economic opportunities elsewhere exercise a kind of exit that can’t generally be replicated through digital substitutes.

  • Max Borders laments that liberalism is in retreat as nationalists and socialists have come to dominate American political discourse. Radical remedies are called for, and so Borders takes issue with Thierer’s concept of permissionless innovation. The point, he says, is not to make leaders more accountable; it is to make top-down leadership obsolete as a form of social organization. When that happens, the ideologies that rely on it will wither.