Americans will soon get a chance to vote at the ballot box. But too little attention has been paid to their declining opportunities to vote with their feet. If we want to expand freedom and opportunity for the poorest among us, we must get moving on making it easier for them to move. Sadly, the issue has been almost completely ignored by both major parties.
Historically, interstate migration has been a major boon for Americans, especially the poor and oppressed. In the 19th century, many moved to the West, which offered greater freedom and opportunity to immigrants, women and religious minorities, such as the Mormons. In the 20th century, millions of African Americans greatly improved their lot by moving north, where there were more job opportunities and less severe racial discrimination than in the Jim Crow era of the South.
Sadly, however, mobility has become more difficult for many of those most in need of it. Studies have found declining rates of residential mobility since about 1980 among African Americans, low-income workers and those with low levels of education. A major recent paper by Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute is one of a number of analyses concluding that this trend has greatly impeded these groups’ ability to pursue job opportunities and increase their income.
In addition to expanding economic opportunity, mobility is also a crucial component of political freedom — perhaps even more so than the right to vote.
Several factors account for declining mobility among the poor and disadvantaged. A major one is the growth of exclusionary zoning in many major cities, which makes it difficult or impossible to build housing in response to demand. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and University of Pennsylvania economist Joseph Gyourko estimate that this increases housing price listings by as much as 50% in urban markets over a decade. This often prices out the poor and lower-middle class, shutting them out from job opportunities.
Another major factor inhibiting mobility for the poor is restrictive occupational licensing. A recent Brookings Institution analysis estimates that 29% of American workers are required to have a license from a state government in order to do their jobs—up from 5% in the 1950s. Licensing is not limited to doctors and lawyers but extends to such unlikely professions as florists, casket makers, interior decorators and tour guides.
Getting a license for these professions is often extremely onerous, requiring thousands of dollars in expenses and years of classes. In a large percentage of cases, the requirements do far more to protect incumbent businesses from competition than serve the public. In many cases, lower-income workers cannot move to practice their professions in a new state because of the need to meet burdensome licensing requirements. Interest groups lobby to ensure that state licensing regimes make it difficult for competitors to come in from other states.
The need to reform zoning and licensing in order to promote mobility is widely agreed upon among experts across the political spectrum. Free-market advocates have been critical of both for decades. In recent years, many left-of-center scholars have reached similar conclusions, including in important recent works by Brookings (on licensing), Yale Law School professor David Schleicher and President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers (on both licensing and zoning). On few important policy issues is there so much cross-ideological consensus among experts.
In addition to expanding economic opportunity, mobility is also a crucial component of political freedom—perhaps even more so than the right to vote. Most people think of voting as the essence of political choice. But individual voters actually have only miniscule influence over government policy. The chance that any one vote will change the outcome of an election is infinitesimally small—perhaps 1 in 60 million in a presidential election, for example. For most people, their best chance to exercise meaningful control over the government policies they live under is by voting with their feet. In that way, they can make a decisive choice to move to a jurisdiction with policies they prefer, whether the policy be taxes, health care, education or something else.
The opportunity to make a genuinely decisive choice also gives foot voters stronger incentives to make well-informed decisions than ballot box voters have. Survey data have shown widespread political ignorance. An October 2015 poll found that only 34% of the public can even name the three branches of government. Public ignorance plays a major role in elections, including this year’s, often leading voters to support dubious candidates and policies. Because there is so little chance that any one vote will make a difference, most people have little motivation to follow politics closely.
By contrast, foot voters know that their decisions matter and therefore work harder to seek out relevant information. Historically, even poorly educated and disadvantaged people have done a good job of identifying which jurisdictions offer the best opportunities and public services. If the essence of political freedom is making informed choices that make a real difference, foot voting fits the bill
Unfortunately, impaired mobility makes foot voting needlessly difficult for those who need it the most. If we want to expand freedom and opportunity, that needs to change.
Ilya Somin is a law professor at George Mason University, and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter.