About this Issue
Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States is Albert O. Hirschman’s greatest contribution to social theory. One of the marks of its importance is that later thinkers from all corners of the political universe have constantly made use of its ideas.
Another is that we’re still talking about it fifty years after its publication. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty has had a particularly interesting life in libertarian circles, where it has inspired a range of views and strategies among thinkers and activists. Some of these will be on display in this month’s issue, where we’ve invited a quartet of Hirschman’s admirers to talk about this book’s influence on their work: The lead essayist is Adam Thierer. He will be joined by Mikayla Novak, Max Borders, and Ilya Somin. Discussion among them will continue through the month, and readers are invited to comment for one month as well.
Voice, Exit, and Innovation
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. It remains an important book with many continuing lessons for us today, especially when our political systems appear more dysfunctional than ever before. Hirschman’s framework is also worth reexamining in light of modern technological developments. It could help us understand how new technological capabilities might give the public greater opportunities to be heard by state actors and potentially alter their behavior.
In his book, Hirschman discussed the interplay between “voice” and “exit” for businesses, organizations, and even governments. “Voice” represents efforts to appeal to higher authorities and encourage them to change an objectionable state of affairs. “Exit” represents any effort to escape the suboptimal state of affairs altogether. He opened his book with the following observation:
Under any economic, social, or political system, individuals, business firms, and organizations in general are subject to lapses from efficient, rational, law-abiding, virtuous, or otherwise functional behavior. No matter how well a society’s basic institutions are devised, failures of some actors to live up to the behavior which is expected of them are bound to occur, if only for all kinds of accidental reasons. Each society learns to live with a certain amount of such dysfunctional or misbehavior; but lest the misbehavior feed on itself and lead to general decay, society must be able to marshal from within itself forces which will make as many of the faltering actors as possible revert to the behavior required for its proper functioning.
Albert O. Hirschman
He went on to discuss how “repairable lapses” (in both firms and governments) might be best addressed and to what degree loyalty of individuals (as customers or as citizens) might affect that balance. In this regard, Hirschman argued that there is an important interplay between voice and exit that is often underappreciated.
“The chances for voice to function effectively as a recuperation mechanism are appreciably strengthened if voice is backed up by the threat of exit, whether it is made openly or whether the possibility of exit is merely well understood to be an element in the situation by all concerned.” Hirschman felt this was equally true for governments, noting that, “exit has an essential role to play in restoring quality performance of government, just as in any organization,” and that even the mere threat of exit could bolster our voices, both individually and collectively.
Innovation as Checks and Balances
In my recent book for the Cato Institute, I build on Hirschman’s insights to consider how entrepreneurialism and innovative activities might be reconceptualized as types of voice and exit. Evasive Entrepreneurs: How Innovation Improves Economies and Governments argues that entrepreneurialism and innovative acts can be viewed as mini-rebellions or marginal revolts that challenge the status quo and can often help bring about positive change through small acts of technologically enabled creativity and resistance to the status quo.
The best thing about innovation as a form of exit is that it falls short of the more radical kind of exit the term conjures up in our minds. Recall Thomas Jefferson’s famous assertions that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” and that revolutionary acts needed to be undertaken every 20 years in an effort to “preserve the spirit of resistance” and keep government accountable to the people. In some ways, it is easier than ever to sympathize with Jefferson’s call for periodic resets of our government. Yet periodic rebellions would entail repeated revolutionary acts that would be difficult to accomplish and certainly highly disruptive to society and economy alike. Upending our political regimes and institutions every few decades is not optimal.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution hoped to avoid that result by instead protecting individual rights and crafting a formal system of checks and balances. Through that system, the power of government over the people would be limited, and methods of recourse would be available to the public to reset government in more peaceful ways that would be less damaging to society than continuous rebellions and revolutions.
Alas, over the past century, government blew right through those barriers and made a mockery of those constitutional constraints. Both legislative and judicial checks and balances have been eroded to the point that they now exist mostly in name only.
Innovation as Relief Valve
If our traditional mechanisms for recourse have failed, how then should we go about addressing the “repairable lapses” using “voice” and “exit” today? While we should never abandon efforts to use democratic and constitutional means of limiting state power, the ongoing evolution of technology can provide another way of keeping governments in line.
Government officials are today confronted with a public that is more empowered by “technologies of resistance”—devices and platforms that let citizens openly defy (or perhaps just ignore) public policies that limit their liberty or freedom to innovate. When the public uses new technological capabilities to challenge outdated and ineffective policies, it can help undo past mistakes or constrain the worst tendencies of lawmakers and regulators going forward.
For example, modern information technologies have quite literally given the public greater voice—domestically and globally—letting people express their opinions about, and take actions to challenge, the power of nation-states, their laws, and their leaders. “The information technologies of the twenty-first century have enabled the public, composed of amateurs, people from nowhere, to break the power of the political hierarchies of the industrial age,” argues my Mercatus Center colleague Martin Gurri in his important book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. It is also harder (but not impossible) for nation-states to control public opinion, dissent, and protests because of these new democratized technological capabilities, including smartphones, instant messaging, and social media platforms.
By giving citizens additional voice and exit options beyond politics, innovative activities can act as a check on government power and encourage a realignment of laws and regulations that have grown outdated, burdensome, unwieldy, inefficient, or even unjust. These mini-revolts act as a sort of relief valve dissipating pressures that build up in a political system—all without resorting to radical action.
Some scholars fear that modern digital technologies have instead given the masses too much of a voice and threaten to become a destabilizing force for nation-states or that these technologies are undermining democracy and the rule of law. In his 2015 book, Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age, Taylor Owen argued that, “the state is losing its status as the pre-eminent mechanism for collective action,” and that while “the state had a virtual monopoly on the ability to shape the behavior of large numbers of people, this is no longer the case.” “Enabled by digital technology,” Owen argued, “disruptive innovators are now able to influence the behavior of large numbers of people without many of the societal constraints that have developed around state action.” Despite Owen’s qualms, there is much to be gained from the technological evolution he worries about.
Evasive Entrepreneurs Bring Positive Change
My new book documents many examples of how innovative activities are contributing to society by giving the public voice and exit opportunities. It documents how these efforts are forcing state actors to reconsider archaic and unwise policies in the process.
Think back to the late 2000s and the launch of sharing economy platforms like Uber and Airbnb. Though sometimes vilified for the way they pushed the envelope and used evasive strategies to gain leverage in regulatory negotiations, consider the alternatives these innovators faced had they not done so. For many decades, economists and other reform-minded policy advocates made the case for liberalizing local transportation and hospitality sector regulations that were hopelessly inefficient and hurt competition and consumer choice. However, those reform advocates made very little progress despite the weight of their evidence. Markets remained largely closed to competition, and incumbents remained safely protected from threats of new entrants and innovations. Consumers bore the cost of these protectionist public policies and they were forced to live with fewer choices, higher prices, and poor service. Again, this dismal state of affairs represented the norm for many decades.
Then, Uber and Airbnb came along and changed the entire conversation in just a few short years. Had Uber and Airbnb not taken the “permissionless innovation” path they did, would we even be talking about the ride-sharing sector and all these sharing economy innovations we enjoy today? People didn’t realize what they were missing until evasive entrepreneurs went out and created it. Today no one except for old taxi and hotel companies would advocate an outright ban on such competitors, even if those companies started out playing by a different set of rules. By pushing back against what Timothy Sandefur refers to as our growing “permission society” and blazing their own trail through acts of evasive entrepreneurialism (i.e., the threat of exit), these firms were able to gain the leverage to have a conversation with regulators on better terms (i.e., voice) and offer citizens important new options they did not have previously.
Citizens have gained many other voice and exit opportunities thanks to modern innovations. In Technology and the End of Authority, Cato Institute research fellow Jason Kuznicki suggests that we are witnessing the rise of what he calls “technocratic de-government” through “technologies, both physical and social, that will allow us more often to do without the coercion that is inherent to governing and thus to the state.” The growing multiplicity of technological tools and capabilities, he argues, poses “an ongoing challenge to political authority.”
The rise of Bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies, and various blockchain applications offer further examples of this. Tyler Cowen argues, “a blockchain is actually a form of governance and that is what makes it such a potentially radical idea.” While the disruptive potential of Bitcoin and blockchain technologies is sometimes overplayed, governments are already struggling to adapt to these new realities. The same is true for many other sectors and technologies that I discuss in my book—quantum computing, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, immersive technologies (like virtual reality), 3D printers, the Internet of Things, advanced medical applications, and more. In each case, technological genies are escaping from their bottles, giving the public more voice and exit options, and putting pressure on state actors. In some cases, these genies will have some troubling applications and ramifications, and new policies may be needed to address worst-case outcomes. For the most part, however, these technologies will empower the public and improve their lives in important ways. Preemptive restrictions should be a last resort.
When entrepreneurialism and innovation act to challenge the status quo, such mini-rebellions can have a salubrious effect on the quality of government administration. Creative acts and the innovations they give rise to can help us improve government by keeping public policies fresh, sensible, and in line with common sense. Dissenting through innovation can help make public officials more responsive to the people by reining in the excesses of the administrative state, making government more transparent and accountable, and ensuring that our civil rights and economic liberties are respected.
If technological innovation can help us check governments’ worst tendencies and improve the quality of our public policies and institutions—all without resorting to radical action—then there is a strong moral case for defending it. That moral case is even stronger still because, by giving the public additional voice and exit options, innovation can help citizens pursue lives of their own choosing and help our leaders better appreciate what the “will of the people” and “consent of the governed” really mean in practice.
Hirschman and Social Movements: The Case of Black Lives Matter
The esteemed Civil Rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As inspiring an observation as this statement is, it suffers from an outstanding problem. Institutional and organizational practices and standards do not automatically adjust themselves. Nor do they necessarily change in a manner, adjudged by all those who live with them, congruent with justice. In any event, justice is a much splendored, yet highly contested, ethical criterion. Whichever way one might interpret justice, or matters related to equality, liberty, and so forth, the question is: how might we respond to actions or conditions failing to correspond with some desired quality?
Albert O. Hirschman attempted to address this question in his Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which is the subject of Adam Thierer’s lead essay. As Hirschman’s book title suggests, individuals can respond to perceived underperformances by corporations, government agencies, or some other provider in different ways. Should alternatives be available at reasonable cost, people could abstain or withdraw (i.e. exit) from their current provider. Individuals may, instead, express displeasure to their provider in a verbal manner or, say, through protest (i.e. voice). The prevalence and intensity of exit and voice responses are influenced by senses of loyalty toward those providing the private or public goods, or governance solutions.
Hirschman’s ideas have been refined, including by Hirschman himself, as researchers better understand the complicated tradeoffs between exit, voice, and loyalty. The effectiveness of responses to underperformance are also shaped by institutions, norms, organizations, and technologies. Thierer’s latest book on “evasive entrepreneurship” situates Hirschman’s conceptual system in a world rapidly adopting digital technologies, such as personal computers, smartphones, and the Internet. According to Thierer, technological innovations provide an opportunity to exit coercive and inefficient over-government.
I wish to add that digital technologies catalyze the creation and amplification of contentious voices. People can use digital platform applications, such as social media, to share grievances about institutional-organizational performances online. The same technologies are used by social movements and related collective technologies, and individuals, to organize mass protests and acts of civil disobedience. Technological innovation provides avenues to realize new liberties of association, seen as a “specifically American remedy for the failure of institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertain nature of the future.” Digital technologies may also help to reduce the costs of collective action along various margins.
Let us focus on one of the momentous social movement episodes of our time: Black Lives Matter (BLM). Whereas the BLM movement is a somewhat loose structure of activists campaigning on a range of racial justice issues, arguably its key issue is preventing violence by police and other law enforcement officers against people of color. Following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner by police officers, protesters have conducted street demonstrations, protest rallies, and political campaigns since 2013. BLM protests have escalated this year following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks.
BLM is often described as an ongoing act of civil disobedience; this is an important subject both to Hirschman and to Thierer in his revisionist account of exit and voice. What is significant is the degree of online engagement by BLM organizers, activists, and supporters. Social media hashtags (such as #blacklivesmatter or #BLM) are diffused to generate public attention to new instances of police brutality, and to publicize protest events. BLM participants have spread online footage of policing abuses. BLM activists and supporters use other online tools to share intelligence and organizational strategies. BLM use digital technologies both as a crowdsourced “disobedient gaze” upon abusive authorities, and to organize contentious tactics.
It is true that some doubt the efficacy of online collective action, but the success of digitally enabled movement activities should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Sociopolitical change cannot be attributed to one individual or group, or cause, but it does appear BLM has helped advance a fruitful policing reform agenda. The need to demilitarize American policing seems to have gained a renewed focus. There also appears to be heightened public awareness about the unjust, discriminatory bases of law enforcement.
By no means can BLM activists be said to be evading the burden of confronting policymakers and members of the public alike over a desire for change. In protesting against police brutality and discrimination against people of color, BLM challenges the purveyors of cultural-social influence and political power to avoid evading the responsibilities of living up to the lofty standards of liberty itself. Central to this is treating everyone fairly and reasonably in matters of law enforcement—specifically, the non-aggressive stance of not hurting, and most certainly, not killing, people who encounter police. A traffic stop, police questioning over a suspected wrongdoing, or an arrest should not represent an opportunity to brutalize or, worst of all, serve as a death sentence.
We do not rule out that some BLM participants maintain certain ideological or philosophical commitments of non-liberal character. Key organizers, activists, and supporters in the movement may even harbor antagonistic “framework disagreements” against liberalism as a set of organizing sociopolitical principles. To the extent that BLM activities are consistent with liberal ends to prevent abuses of the state, participants might be functionally depicted as being robust loyalists to a liberty-consistent idea. It is also worthy to mention that those involved in BLM protests and related activities are exercising their rights of association, expression, and speech, representing domains of activity consistent with extensive liberal interpretations of democratic interaction.
It has been suggested in some quarters that we presently live in a “golden age” of social movement activity. Whatever our attitudes toward such a suggestion, there seems little doubt that Albert Hirschman’s exit-voice-loyalty model serves as a useful framework through which to analyze social movements. Adam Thierer’s contribution to “Hirschman Studies” enables us to more deeply investigate who is evading whom, and where loyalties lie, in the meaningful pursuit of equality, justice, and liberty in our fractious times.
 King, M. L., Jr., ““Where Do We Go From Here?,” Address Delivered at the Eleventh Annual SCLC Convention.” [https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go…]
 For example, Hirschman, A. O. (1980), “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Further Reflections and a Survey of Recent Contributions,” Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly/Health and Society 58(3): 430-453.
 Useful surveys are provided by Dowding, K., John, P., Mergoupis, T. and Van Vugt, M. (2000), “Exit, voice and loyalty: Analytic and empirical developments,” European Journal of Political Research 37: 469-495; and John, P. and Dowding, K. (2016), “Spanning Exit and Voice: Albert Hirschman’s Contribution to Political Science,” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 34(B): 175-196.
 Thierer, A. (2020), Evasive Entrepreneurs and The Future of Governance. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, p. 116.
 Ince, J., Rojas, F. and Davis, C. A. (2017), “The social media response to Black Lives Matter: how Twitter users interact with Black Lives Matter through hashtag use,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 40(11): 1814-1830.
 Kumanyika, C. (2017), “Livestreaming in the Black Lives Matter Network,” in DIY Utopia: Cultural Imagination and the Remaking of the Possible, ed. A. Day. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, pp. 169-188.
 Politi, D. (2020), “Activists Create Public Online Spreadsheet of Police Violence Videos.” [https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/06/george-floyd-public-spreads…]
 Gurri, Martin (2018), The Revolt of the Public and The Crisis of Authority in The New Millennium. San Francisco, CA: Stripe Press; Tufecki, Z. (2017), Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
 Balko, R. (2013), Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York, NY: Public Affairs; Coyne, C. J. and Hall, A. R. (2018), Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
 Parker, K., Horowitz, J. M. and Anderson, M. (2020), Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Pew Research Center, June 12. [https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-acr…]
 Lavoie, D. (1993), Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society. Social Philosophy and Policy 10 (2): 103-120; Goodman, Nathan P. (2019), “Don Lavoie’s Dialectical Liberalism,” In The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Conext of Human Freedom, eds. R. E. Bissell, C. M. Sciabarra and E. W. Younkins. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, pp. 133-148.
 Brannen, S. J., Haig, C. S. and Schmidt, K. (2020), The Age of Mass Protests: Understanding an Escalating Global Trend. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies. [https://www.csis.org/analysis/age-mass-protests-understanding-escalatin…]
Mikayla Novak is a doctoral candidate in the School of Sociology at The Australian National University. Her current research interests include classical sociology, digital sociology, economic and fiscal sociology, social movement studies, social network analysis, and social philosophy. With an academic and professional background in economics, her publications have appeared in outlets such as Research Policy, Constitutional Political Economy, Review of Austrian Economics, Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy, Cosmos+Taxis, and The Cato Journal. Mikayla Novak is the author of Inequality: An Entangled Political Economy Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) and is presently writing a book intersecting classical liberal political economy and social movement studies. She has previously contributed to libertarianism.org.
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).
A Little Rebellion Now and Then Is a Good Thing
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you.
- John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”
When it comes to politics, the left-right dimension has become nearly unrecognizable. At one extreme, a mob shouts, loots, topples, and cancels. At the other extreme, reactionaries, theocrats, and trolls cheer a strongman as his agents toss protesters into unmarked vans. The rest—the bell of the curve—picks a team and watches from the bleachers.
That is, except for the liberals:
- We liberals have always prized voice, but the air has become more toxic to discourse.
- We liberals have always sought exit, but right now there’s really nowhere to go.
- We liberals have always been loyal, but to a set of ideals rather than a patch of soil.
And we are in retreat.
It feels like we’re on the front cusp of a Dark Age. The relevant political axis is liberal-authoritarian, but too few care about this distinction, if they even know what it means. Politics has degenerated. Rival gangs war over mindshare, poised to seize control of a great protection racket. That means true liberals can no longer afford to be half-hearted. Instead we have to figure out how to harness the power of exit, voice, and loyalty, or things are going to get a hell of a lot more dystopian.
In the fifty years since the publication of Albert Hirschman’s masterwork, innovators have created new recipes that realize his tripartite human algorithm: Social media offered amateurs a new kind of megaphone; cryptocurrencies offered a monetary escape hatch; network effects create grudging-but-powerful loyalties. For all the marginal technological improvements, we still haven’t quite been able to self-organize in parallel with Leviathan.
But we have to.
The Jeffersonian Fire
Adam Thierer, in the lead essay for the fiftieth anniversary of Hirschman’s book, writes:
If technological innovation can help us check governments’ worst tendencies and improve the quality of our public policies and institutions—all without resorting to radical action—then there is a strong moral case for defending it.
Maybe Thierer and I have very different conceptions of “radical action,” but I think there is a far stronger moral case for liberal radicalism than mere checks and balances. If the unprecedented levels of spending and debt weren’t enough to justify it, maybe the disquieting expansion of the police and surveillance states is a reminder that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”
We need more of that Jeffersonian fire.
I don’t mean that we ought to “hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats.” Nor should we run into the streets to chant slogans during a pandemic. I mean we need to be constructive revolutionaries, accelerating those innovations most likely to undermine the apparatuses of state power. We can do this by developing protocols of subversion that will have a cumulative decentralizing effect. Because with every successive generation, federal power grows. And its growth seems to be inversely proportional to Americans’ belief in liberalism.
Thierer thinks innovation should be about keeping policy “fresh” and “sensible.” The apotheosis of Thierer’s “permissionless innovation,” then, is to:
help make public officials more responsive to the people by reining in the excesses of the administrative state, making government more transparent and accountable, and ensuring that our civil rights and economic liberties are respected.
The point is not to make public officials more responsive, it’s to make them redundant. The goal is not to rein in the excesses of the administrative state, it’s to obviate it. Nor is it just to make the government more transparent and accountable, but rather to establish protocols of self-organization that make Leviathan entirely obsolete.
As complexity scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam writes,
Why should governments fail? Because leaders, whether self-appointed dictators, or elected officials, are unable to identify what policies will be good for a complex society. The unintended consequences are beyond their comprehension. Regardless of values or objectives, the outcomes are far from what they intend.
There is a solution. It is not a form of government, no “ism” or “ocracy’’ will do. It begins with widespread individual action that transforms society—a metamorphosis of social organization in which leadership no longer serves the role it has over millennia. A different type of existence will emerge, affecting all of us as individuals and enabling us to live in a complex world.
Bar-Yam sees a complexity transition in which we leave political and organizational hierarchies behind in favor of systems of decentralized teamwork. In fact, as society becomes more complex, there are really two choices before us: decentralization or collapse.
Even if we fall short of such ambitions in our lifetimes, we have to try. Threatening violence against innocents to realize your notion of the good not only doesn’t work very well, it’s wrong. And yet authoritarianism is back in fashion. So, I at least partly agree with erstwhile liberal Peter Thiel, who in these very pages wrote “we are in a deadly race between politics and technology.”
Maybe I’ve misunderstood permissionless innovation, I thought. It turns out I had. Here’s how Thierer explains it:
For innovation and growth to blossom, entrepreneurs need a clear green light from policymakers that signals a general acceptance of risk-taking, especially risk-taking that challenges existing business models and traditional ways of doing things. We can think of this disposition as permissionless innovation and if there was one thing every policymaker could do to help advance long-term growth, it is to first commit themselves to advancing this ethic and making it the lodestar for all their future policy pronouncements and decisions. (Emphasis mine.)
Before reading the above passage, I thought surely permissionless innovation meant the kinds of innovations that geeks and dreamers could create, and the rest of us could adopt, without getting anyone’s permission. Can you imagine if Jefferson or John Perry Barlow had written “The Entreaty of Independence”? If we are to sit around and wait for some authority, whose power depends on the status quo, to give us a “clear green light” to upend the status quo, there will never be meaningful, lasting social change.
The question for Thierer, then, is if there is no green light, what happens? So let’s get beyond “permissionless innovation.” What I have in mind is a little more radical.
Maybe I’m just getting impatient in my old age, but whether one desires fresh, sensible policy or bold experiments in human self-organization, we’re getting too little of either. What we’re getting instead is an unhealthy excess of voice, too few opportunities to exit, and a whole lot of misguided loyalty to two parties who care only about having power. Our neglected liberal order has become dry kindling between two extremist groups—one with tiki torches and the other with Molotov cocktails. Staring down $24 trillion debt, and much more in unfunded liabilities, we could be less than a decade from either collapse or civil war.
We need a different kind of revolution.
We can no longer labor under the sentimental notions of “voice” such as voter enfranchisement and public service. We should all know our public choice by now. Even if most voters had a sense of history, restraint, or civic consciousness, representative government would still be a mirage. To the extent elections do reflect voter preferences, these amount to an incoherent blur. Too many voters now have a greater appetite for tribal domination. Which leads me to wonder why any liberal would want to “make public officials more responsive,” as if all we are talking about is fixing potholes or shortening the line at the DMV.
When it comes to subversive innovation, we seem to be stuck on the same old examples: Uber. Airbnb. Bitcoin. That was a good start, but we need a tidal wave of novelty. New tools. New rules. Simple, accessible and ready for mass adoption. These innovations will create new institutional forms and communities of practice into which millions of adopters can flow—especially if things keep going downhill. If a critical mass of constituencies adopt these innovations, we have a prayer of inverting the process of concentrated benefits, dispersed costs. We can’t forget voice or loyalty, of course. But we need to invest a lot more in exit.
The best way to honor Hirschman’s work, then, is to think of it more as a manual. Like the rest of our liberalism, we must take what is now perceived as a rather bloodless set of maxims and rules and transform these into active practices. We can’t afford to wait around for authoritarian mind viruses to recede with the electoral tides. We must engage not in overthrow, but in “underthrow,” which requires more than tut tutting on social media. Otherwise the thumbs under which we already live will become unbearably heavy, as they have for the people of Hong Kong.
“Every innovation is an act of subversion”, I wrote in my book The Social Singularity:
Just before Satoshi Nakamoto published his 2008 white paper on the rudiments of Bitcoin, it must have been a bit like holding a lit match over dry forest underbrush. Did he linger for a moment before hitting enter?
Maybe in that moment he closed his eyes and saw flashes from the future: of a thousand pimply geeks becoming millionaires overnight. Of Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road’s Dread Pirate Roberts, being led away in handcuffs. Of mutant strains, copycats, forks, and tokens competing in an entire ecosystem of cryptocurrencies as in a digital coral reef. Of booms and busts and troughs of disillusionment.
We don’t know. But we do know one thing about Satoshi Nakamoto: he hit enter.
Satoshi Nakamoto was a radical. The bitcoin white paper is exit, voice, and loyalty in one: the blueprints to escape our imposed systems of central banking (exit); nine pages of pure cypherpunk expression that inspired an army of coders (voice), and an implicit commitment to liberalism, that cosmopolitan ideal enshrined in the Bill of Rights (loyalty).
We need more Satoshis.
So how can we turn exit, voice, and loyalty into active practices?
Exit: It’s not enough to leave for Panama, Switzerland or Malta. It’s not enough to pay lip service to Amendments Nine and Ten. We must set about creating technologies that facilitate new markets in governance:
- Let’s create special economic zones like Prospera, startup societies, even parallel jurisdictions of “cloud governance.”
- Let’s build new systems of schooling, healthcare, and mutual aid, many of which will be decoupled from territory.
- Let’s create new power-shifted systems of corporate management and governance like Holacracy, including dynamic equity shares and cooperative ownership structures.
In other words, we must innovate in both polycentric law and polyarchy. Because even if we cannot adopt these systems wholesale today, we want them to exist when the checks won’t cash, and a cup of coffee costs $100, and America’s own Cultural Revolution has run its course.
Voice: Voting in national elections is like yelling at two bad teams from the nosebleeds at Madison Square Garden. That is not a system worth preserving, even with blockchain voting. We are living in the era of memetic warfare, and liberalism is losing. So:
- We have to get more creative, artful, and ennobling with our messages—not only so we can capture more mindshare, but so we can offer a spiritual home to those who are more interested in human progress than meme wars.
- We have to bring about a great media hard fork—such as the decentralized web and social media—so that liberal voices can’t be deplatformed by government functionaries or private censors. We will have to tolerate conspiracies and offensive speech, but we can train ourselves to be more discerning and filter out the nonsense.
- We have to insist on liberal rules of inquiry, including standards of rationality and evidence that work against authoritarian assertions—whether from critical theorists or political hacks. Otherwise, voice will continue to serve power.
There may come a day, though, when the time for talk is over.
Loyalty: July 4th is to Americans what Christmas is to Americans: an excuse to eat a lot and forget why you’re celebrating. So, we have to recommit to the ideas that animated the American founding—and build on them. This isn’t empty patriotism. It is thoughtful reflection and the cultivation of liberal virtue. Our mantra is and must always be Libertas perfundet omnia luce. (Freedom will flood all things with light.) And we have to turn this form of loyalty into new expressions of civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance, and organizational transformation. If we don’t hasten a liberal renaissance, we will find ourselves reduced to an inscription on Ozymandias’s pedestal.
A liberal renaissance is also going to require us to improve upon liberalism itself. One big reason liberalism is in decline is that it has become a rather lifeless collection of rules, some of which were written down in what used to be our social operating system. To the American Founders, these ideas had been a secular religion. Over time, though, fewer and fewer Americans venerate them. So maybe it’s time we took an Eastern turn.
Fear is the Enemy
Maybe you’ve heard the term ahimsa from the Vedic traditions. Ahimsa is the practice of nonviolence in thought, word, and deed. It requires discipline and patience. Libertarian adherents to Mill’s Harm Principle or the homelier Non-Aggression Principle will do well to look to the Buddhists and Jains who practice ahimsa because practice goes deeper than principle. Practice, after all, is a conscious and continuous commitment to right action, which can be infectious to those around you.
Though it seems contradictory, we need civility and civil disobedience at the same time. It is through such practice that we make good trouble. Ahimsa first, then satyagraha (truth force), animated Gandhi in his courageous struggles against the British Empire in India. It animated James Morris Lawson, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights era. And it can animate every coder, legal scholar, and organizational innovator who dares to compete with the state by offering new governance products. So by Jeffersonian fire we don’t mean refreshing the tree of liberty “with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” We mean that “Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.”
A lot of liberals think that government is the enemy. It’s no wonder, as writer Jamie Bartlett puts it, “Nation-states rely on control.” And fear is control’s lever. But Bartlett adds:
If they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them. In the end, nation-states are nothing but agreed-upon myths: we give up certain freedoms in order to secure others.But if that transaction no longer works, and we stop agreeing on the myth, it ceases to have power over us.
Maybe our true enemy, then, is fear. It’s fear that causes us humbly to request a green light. It’s fear that keeps us from trying new things. And it’s fear that makes us submit to the urge to control. The more we lock arms in solidarity, the less afraid we’ll be. It’s time for liberals to go from being passive adherents to an abstract doctrine to being active practitioners recreating society. Our three fundamental paths are exit, voice, and loyalty.
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.
Stoking the Fire
It appears our response essays have been able to rekindle a little more of the revolutionary fire in Adam Thierer. This is most welcome. The world needs that fire, and needs it to spread quickly. Still, Mr. Thierer takes issue with my position, so I’m obliged to defend myself a little and offer clarification.
As I noted in my opening essay, “repeated revolutionary acts… would be difficult to accomplish and certainly highly disruptive to society and economy alike.”
It depends on what sort of repeated revolutionary acts one means. Innovators disrupting industries is creative destruction. Should rideshare customers worry about the economy of taxi drivers? Should tomorrow’s creative opt-out innovations in the healthcare sector prompt concern about the supplicants of the Care-tel? Should we be worried that people moving to Prospera for a better business climate are traitors to America?
Indeed, if we could develop effective, voluntary solutions to help the poor, keep the peace, and collaborate at scale—wouldn’t we want to?
Permissionless Creative Destruction
Maybe Thierer and I aren’t quite aligned on what we mean when we say “revolutionary,” but I can think of nothing more destructive to society and the economy than the status quo. As the U.S. federal government continues to drop unprecedented sums of largesse from the sky, we are supposed to be loyal, according to Thierer. We are supposed to oblige policy makers to tinker around the edges as the government wields more dangerous, unconstitutional powers. But most importantly, we’re supposed to take the matter upstairs, as it were.
I suspect Thierer at least partially misunderstands what I meant by my challenge. I’m not taking him to task due to some failure to “swing for the fences.” Not per se. My concern is with his suggested avenue of change. Specifically, Thierer puts the locus of change on legislators and voters. I put the locus of change on innovators and adopters. Thierer thinks my innovators need to get permission from his legislators. I simply don’t agree.
It’s also not clear that the sort of “revolutionary acts” that I’m referring to would be detrimental to either the society or the economy. Barring some edge cases, most innovations are created to make life better for people along some dimension. Subversive innovation is no different. It just disrupts goods and services normally supplied by (or approved by) government officials.
Just as Uber made life better for transportation, the next wave of subversive innovations will make life better in any number of sectors, especially those currently operating as regulatory cartels. Maybe Thierer is worried that some digital healthcare co-op would gain market share and challenge ACA-compliant, subsidized health insurance plans. Maybe he worries cryptocurrencies will challenge the Federal Reserve. But if such uncomfortable transitions liberated people from cronyism, wouldn’t that be worth it?
At the end of the day, Thierer is worried that what I mean by revolution is the wholesale dismantling of the federal government, which he calls “slash and burn” thinking. I don’t see things this way. I see innovators creating thousands of opportunities for alternative systems to emerge and compete with the federal government in many different ways. If people adopt those systems en masse, the people have spoken.
It’s revolution by evolution.
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.
What constitutional order is that? Is it the one in which the president waits for Congress to go to war? Or the one in which all those “powers” are “delegated to the states and to the people?” Is the one in which spooks are forbidden to access your webcam or files without a warrant? Or the one in which dogs determine whether a cop is justified in executing a warrantless search of your property? Is it the constitutional order where people can be imprisoned indefinitely once they’re designated a “terrorist?” Or is it the one where the executive branch can do pretty much anything it damn well pleases with a pen and a phone?
We haven’t been disloyal to the constitutional order. The constitutional order has been disloyal to us. And the degree to which that order becomes illiberal is the degree we owe it our disloyalty as conscientious liberals.
The purpose of writing a Constitution had been to keep power in check, that is, to tell agents of the state what they have legal permission to do. As of 2020, I don’t consider it to be wildly successful in this regard. I suspect most readers of this publication don’t either. It doesn’t mean we don’t respect the ideals, it means we expect more.
Amendments Nine and Ten are enshrined rights of exit. When is the last time anyone has seen the federal government respect those Amendments? The only power the states and the people have gotten of significance in the last twenty years is legal pot. What evidence can Thierer or anyone else find that Barnett’s “Lost Constitution” is likely to be restored through ordinary means?
As for my loyalty to the Constitution, it’s exactly why I am a radical liberal. The profound want of any loyalty to the Constitution by partisans and politicos is precisely why I encourage subversive innovation. We liberals can either choose to be a shrinking remnant or a potent vanguard. Because either way, our fundamental rights are being eroded with each passing year. We are staring down a tsunami of red ink that threatens total economic and social collapse. And nobody seems to care as long as Congress keeps cutting checks.
Without being animated by the people’s sentiments, the Constitution is just a document. People have to believe in it as secular scripture or any liberal constitutional order will eventually be lost. With each passing year, I see people losing faith. The society that was meant to flow from the Constitution is moribund.
Jefferson vs. Conservatism
Notwithstanding his nod to Jefferson, Thierer’s position is ultimately conservative. This conservatism is defined as fidelity to fundamental institutions. But what if those institutions no longer serve us? What is the limiting principle for circumventing the current system? What special knowledge or insight do those in power have that we require their imprimatur? Why is it wrong or misguided to replace obsolete machinations of the state with something better?
Maybe Thierer understands my position as being too literally Jeffersonian, as in calling for some sort of armed rebellion. I made it clear that what I’m calling for is not only peaceful, but involves people developing new waves of innovation (whether legal or technological) that could fundamentally transform the way we organize ourselves relative to one another. These new institutions would not be imposed, but chosen in freedom. Such a shift in power can occur when we lateralize our relationships, dismantle our hierarchies, and otherwise create pockets of liberal order that Jefferson might have praised.
Are we to continue to labor under the illusion that a few people doing politics, policy, and punditry is the way to bring about a truly liberal order? Or are we going to be the change we want to see in the world? I for one am tired of outsourcing my hopes to Washington. If we’re going to liberate ourselves, we’ve got to get creative. Voting, picketing, and passing whitepapers to hill staffers has gotten us very little. And it’s not likely to yield much more in the future.
“Just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef,” writes political scientist James C. Scott, “so do thousands upon thousands of individual acts of insubordination and evasion create a political or economic barrier reef of their own.”
In the twenty-first century, a new liberal order will only constitute itself if we offer people the ability to lateralize their relationships, collaborate, and self-organize. So let’s not get lost in Washington’s collective failure of imagination. We can develop new protocols to live by, whether or not means restoring the lost Constitution. And then we must live by those protocols so as to create new network effects.
Otherwise, we’ll go another 100 years singing Hamilton but ignoring Robert Yates.
On the precise mechanisms of change, it appears Thierer’s and my views are incommensurable:
- Thierer’s prescription is more or less to wave from the nosebleed seats at partisans in hopes that they’ll give us permission to check their excesses. We must be loyal to the “constitutional order,” such as it is. Change must come from the top down.
- My prescription is to create parallel institutions and disruptive technologies that have the potential to compete with much of the old hierarchical order. These innovations will offer people the means to peacefully self-organize in parallel, eventually to thrive in a world of increasing complexity. Change can come from the bottom up.
Does it matter? Must we decide today which path is the best? Or can we take divergent paths? If policy analysts and lobbyists can get a green light from authorities, I certainly have no objection.
One of the basic questions of “good” law is whether people actually follow it. In fact, the better the laws within a system, the more likely people are going to try to migrate to that system and follow that set of laws. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter what anyone considers the right and the good. We’re entering an era of radical social experimentation carried out on far smaller scales than the revolutionary experiments of past centuries—whether Bolshevism or a “shot heard round the world.” People will be able to opt in and opt out of systems as it suits them. Weak or sclerotic systems may die. This is not ideology. It’s evolution. We’ll come back to this idea in a moment.
Still, Thierer takes issue with my preferred avenue of change. Strangely, he accuses me of shying away from “discussing just how far we should go,” but then quotes me as saying the point “is not to make public officials more responsive, it’s to make them redundant” and to “make Leviathan entirely obsolete.” Somehow this is both shying away from explaining how far I would go, but going too far at the same time!
Then comes the label:
Neo-anarchist calls for “subversion” probably aren’t going to help us accomplish [gaining more mindshare]. 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.
With scarequotes around “subversion,” the reader is prompted to conclude that anything beyond traditional politics is going to scare the bejeezus out of people. Perhaps. But that’s only if you think that voice and exit require the same strategic approach.
I certainly don’t.
With voice, we experiment with all the ways we can make liberalism great again in the minds of more people. With exit, we create new rules and new tools that allow people to opt in to new systems with minimal talk talk, and a little “sweet talk”. And both dimensions require multiple iteration cycles to see what works.
Let’s use one of Thierer’s favorite examples in Uber: People didn’t read ads saying they should use a new-anarchist tool of subversion designed to destroy the taxi medallion regime. They got an ad on Facebook saying “Ride in style.” Then by word of mouth, customers told each other they could safely and cheaply take a ride in a clean car owned and driven by a friendly person. The whole rating thing is really effective, too.
And so it is with all manner of disruptive innovations, including those Clayton Christiansen would have identified. They are inherently subversive. Even if you don’t think we need a little bit of cyberpunk flavor to get the hacker kids building cool stuff, the most profound transformations aren’t going to come from Washington think tanks contributing to the policy paper-industrial complex. They’re going to come from the fringe.
Evolutionary Fitness Landscape
At the end of the day, the recipes of social change exist within an evolutionary fitness landscape. That means debates like this one, while interesting, are more spectacle than substance. One of my favorite mantras is “criticize by creating.” Policy analysts’ efforts to bend the knee before authorities and humbly request change might or might not work. Subversive innovators’ efforts to circumvent regulatory and taxing authorities might or might not work. Some combination of both might or might not work. Such is the binary nature of Darwin’s great algorithm. How persuasive we are about our different approaches might help us succeed at the margins, but over time, the real question is whether change gets made and by what means. I’ll leave Mr. Thierer to his preferred path. And I’ll take my own.
How Sanctuary Jurisdictions Expand Exit Rights
I actually agree with most of what Adam Thierer says in his insightful response essay, including his reply to Max Borders, his warning that “ we probably shouldn’t place too much faith in the most radical exit solutions,” and most of his comments on sanctuary jurisdictions. But I do take a more favorable view of imperfect versions of the latter than he does.
“Sanctuary” jurisdictions are state and local governments that refuse to help higher-level governments (such as the federal government) to enforce certain types of laws. In more controversial cases, they may even make affirmative efforts to provide refuge for violations.
I myself have written extensively about immigration sanctuary cities, which restrict cooperation with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants (e.g. here and here). I am even one of the relatively few people who is sympathetic to both liberal immigration sanctuaries and conservative gun rights sanctuaries.
Thierer is right that there is a good deal of inconsistency and “selective morality” in the discourse over sanctuary cities. People who sympathize with left-wing sanctuary causes tend to condemn right-wing ones, and vice versa, even in cases where the legal and moral issues involved are remarkably similar. Such ideological—and often even purely partisan—bias is part of the broader phenomenon of “fair weather federalism,” where both Republicans and Democrats all too often condemn or praise limitations on federal power depending primarily on whose ox is being gored.
Last year, I wrote a Washington Post article explaining how liberals had begun to take a more favorable view of limits on federal power in recent years. Much of this was simply a consequence of efforts to combat Trump administration initiatives. But I also outlined ways in which this shift reflects more deeply rooted changes in the political valence of federalism. How much of the latter will survive the double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and Joe Biden potentially recapturing the White House for the Democrats remains to be seen.
Like Thierer, I would prefer a broader and more principled commitment to limiting federal power, on both left and right. But I fear we may not get it anytime soon.
In the meantime, even hypocritical sanctuary movements can still provide valuable foot-voting options and protect people against overreaching federal government policies. Immigration sanctuaries can still provide valuable refuge to undocumented immigrants, their families, and those who seek to engage in various economic and social transactions with them. Gun-rights sanctuaries can do the same for those who place a high value on the right to bear arms. And they can serve that purpose even if the politicians who enact such policies are doing so primarily out of ideological or partisan bias, rather than any principled commitment to limiting federal power.
The refuge provided by sanctuary jurisdictions is necessarily imperfect. In most cases, they cannot prevent the federal government from simply sending in its own law-enforcement agents to arrest and punish those “protected” by states or localities. In the long run, the best way to maximize foot-voting opportunities and constrain federal power is to enforce tighter limits on the range of substantive issues the latter is allowed to regulate. I would include both immigration and guns among the many issues where federal power needs to be curbed. I discuss the foot-voting rationale for such constraints in much greater detail in my recent book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.
But the severely limited resources of federal law enforcement (which have only a fraction of the personnel of their state and local counterparts) ensure there are tight limits to what the feds can accomplish without state and local cooperation. The rapidly growing fiscal crisis facing the federal government will make it difficult to radically expand its law enforcement establishment.
As they currently exist, sanctuary movements have many serious flaws. Over time, I hope we can expand them in some of the ways Thierer suggests in his recent essay on the subject. In the meantime, we should take what we can get, and remember that the best possible sanctuary system should not be the enemy of a good one—or even one that’s just good enough for government work. As Thierer notes in his response to Max Borders, we should “push for more incremental approach[es] and small wins,” even as we seek to accomplish more than that in the long run.