Giving Meaning to Voice and Exit

The response essays by Mikayla Novak, Ilya Somin, and Max Borders demonstrate the continuing relevance of Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty fifty years after its publication. Each author makes important contributions to a better understanding of what Hirschman’s book—and each of the terms in its title—mean today.

Mikayla Novak rightly points to the importance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in thinking about how digital technologies can “help to reduce the costs of collective action along various margins” and “catalyze the creation and amplification of contentious voices.” Sometimes it is difficult to appreciate just how fast history is moving when you are living through it. BLM has taken advantage of new communications and media technologies to scale up this important movement and message with extraordinary effectiveness. BLM has combined traditional in-the-streets protest tactics with modern ones—online engagement, citizen-journalism, and “sousveillance”—to shine a light on racial injustices and police brutality. This has led to, “heightened public awareness about the unjust, discriminatory bases of law enforcement,” Novak argues.

Of course, it is still too early to know if we can chalk this up as a win because, as she notes, “the success of digitally enabled movement activities should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.” Moreover, “[i]nstitutional and organizational practices and standards do not automatically adjust themselves.” Even though I am encouraged by how modern technological capabilities give individuals and social movements like BLM greater voice options, real change still takes time. Just amplifying voice is not enough. Something more is usually needed to achieve meaningful change.

This leads nicely into the contributions by Ilya Somin and Max Borders. Somin stresses “the continuing importance of physical freedom of movement” in ensuring that our rights our honored. “No technological innovation provides an adequate substitute for the power to ‘vote with your feet’ by choosing where to live and work.” Somin’s latest book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom, drives that point home powerfully.

I agree wholeheartedly that we must never ignore the physical component of the exit equation. In fact, in an essay earlier this year, I made “The Case for Sanctuary Cities in Many Different Contexts,” as “a way to encourage experiments in alternative governance models and just let people live lives of their choosing.” In theory, sanctuaries can help advance exactly the sort of foot voting Somin desires. Unfortunately, today’s sanctuary movements are quite one-dimensional, focusing exclusively on single causes like immigrant rights, gun rights, or marijuana decontrol. Worse yet, selective morality runs deep when it comes to the support they garner. While defenders of one type of sanctuary will make strong moral claims in favor of exit for the causes they favor, their defense almost never extends to the underlying act of rule departure or civil disobedience more generally.

Consistent with what Somin advocates in his essay and recent book, I believe there is a profoundly positive case for embracing sanctuaries and the free movement of people among them regardless of what the cause is. Greater localized decisionmaking, policy experimentation, and alternative governance arrangements have value in and of themselves. The question is whether sanctuaries can scale and become a more meaningful and lasting form of exit to help us capitalize on the dream Somin and I both share.

In some ways, we are just restating Robert Nozick’s “utopia of utopias” vision, and even the framework suggested by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Alas, things have not played out as well as we classical liberals would have liked. The Founders’ federalism has been beaten down by and an endless expansion of federal power. To the extent modern sanctuary movements gained any real headwind and became meaningful exit options, federal officials would likely move to snuff them out, too.

All hope is not lost, however. While Somin is correct that “there is no purely technological solution,” the question is how we can advance foot voting by tapping new “technologies of freedom” to increase our leverage when pushing for greater exit rights. There are no silver bullets, of course, and we probably shouldn’t place too much faith in the most radical exit solutions, such as seasteading. It is not that I don’t find the idea attractive; it’s just not very realistic for most of us.

In my new Cato Institute book Evasive Entrepreneurs, I push for more incremental approach and small wins in an attempt to find a little freedom in an unfree world, to borrow Harry Browne’s old phrase. I discuss how “innovation arbitrage” is intensifying, with inventors, investors, and innovations moving more freely to jurisdictions that are more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity. Evasive entrepreneurialism and jurisdictional shopping are being fueled by the “pacing problem,” or the fact that technological change increasingly happens much faster than policy change. I argue this is a positive development if for no other reason than that it greatly enhances the bargaining power of innovators and consumers when politicians seek to constrain choices. We do not always have perfect exit options, but the mere threat of increased rule evasion and jurisdiction shopping is helping to open the door to a bit more freedom at the margin. Ridesharing companies won the freedom to operate using this playbook, but there are also still many laws on the books governing those services. Still, we are not going back to the old days of exclusive licensing and cronyist taxicab cartels. I consider that a win for freedom.

In his response essay, Max Borders calls me out for adopting this more incrementalist approach. Borders is distressed that I am even willing to entertain the idea of seeking small victories when we should be swinging for the fences instead. Most critics of my books Permissionless Innovation and Evasive Entrepreneurs accuse me being a closet crypto-anarchist, so it is refreshing to be portrayed as a raging moderate for once!

Borders says there is “a far stronger moral case for liberal radicalism than mere checks and balances,” the one I make in my lead essay and my books. He calls for a renewed “Jeffersonian fire,” in the sense that, as Thomas Jefferson once quipped, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

Jefferson’s call for a rebellious spirit and periodic resets of government has long animated my life’s work, but, as I noted in my opening essay, “repeated revolutionary acts… would be difficult to accomplish and certainly highly disruptive to society and economy alike.” Borders prefers we go further, so much so that his essay raises the question whether we should have any loyalty whatsoever to our current constitutional order. Alas, he shies away from discussing just how far we should go, preferring instead to merely say that we need to be “constructive revolutionaries, accelerating those innovations most likely to undermine the apparatuses of state power.”

In that sense, Borders and I are more in league than his response would suggest, but words and specific remedies matter. To promote more formal exit, he suggests we move beyond the concept of permissionless innovation and toward “subversive innovation” by developing “protocols of subversion that will have a cumulative decentralizing effect.” We need more Satoshi Nakamotos, he argues.

Where we part ways is that I am willing to think through second-best scenarios and be pragmatic about the prospects for revolutionary change. For example, when he argues that the ultimate goal of subversive innovation “is not to make public officials more responsive, it’s to make them redundant” and “make Leviathan entirely obsolete,” that sounds more like a straightforward call for anarchism. It at least echoes the polemics like Timothy May’s “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” and John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”

Much in those essays inspired me, and I’ve cited them plenty of times in the work I did for Cato and other organizations over the past quarter century. As inspirational as they may be, however, those polemics not only fall short of providing us with a blueprint for realistic change, but they also fall short of fulfilling another goal Borders says is important: better messaging to help us “capture more mindshare,” and “offer a spiritual home to those who are more interested in human progress than meme wars.” Neo-anarchist calls for “subversion” probably aren’t going to help us accomplish that. That approach will just scare away potential converts and lead to more of the same sort of ridicule heaped on May and Barlow for their eloquent but edgy and unrealistic manifestos.

We need a more sophisticated approach to constraining state power that begins by acknowledging it is going to take a long time to clean up the messes of the past and that some government powers and agencies are probably going to be with us for a long time to come. Some libertarians call me out for taking this approach, preferring to angrily condemn anything short of slash-and-burn slogans for existing government policies and institutions. As someone who has spent a lifetime advocating for sweeping overhaul of government programs—the first book I co-authored was a blueprint for how to abolish the Federal Communications Commission!—I am sympathetic to many of these calls. But what is the backup plan should we fail?

One can advocate a robust conception of permissionless innovation—a broad-based presumption that innovators should be free to act without prior restraint—but also grapple with the practical realities of existing political systems. I support every innovation discussed in Borders’s essay and have been a cheerleader for the most disruptive technologies that could help us shift the balance of power in profound ways. But I have also devoted time to thinking through how to eke out a little more freedom at the margin through less grandiose all-or-nothing forms of voice and exit. I think it is worth exploring how classical liberals have translated concepts such “the right to earn a living” and “the right to try” into meaningful, but incremental, reform movements. In both cases, we led with big ideas but then spent years toiling in courts and legislatures to give these concepts real meaning.

What I hope could unify all calls for greater voice and exit rights is an appreciation for how even small acts of technological creativity can be useful correctives when legal and regulatory systems fail us. But it will take more than just calling for more Satoshis to make sure that meaningful change happens.

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.