Published December 30, 2020
Review of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, by Ilya Somin
Children in cages, chain-linked fences, warehouses full of people—this describes an infrastructure built by President Obama and used by President Trump. President Bush deported 1.7 million illegal immigrants. President Obama deported 3 million illegal immigrants; instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) policy, saving 750,000 children and young adults from deportation; and shut down the “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy—stopping all Cubans fleeing the Cuban communist regime from entering America. There are no final numbers for President Trump but for the fiscal years 2017-2019 he deported 985,265 illegal immigrants. Projected over eight years, that number would be roughly 2.6 million, putting him between Bush and Obama.
For generations, activist groups have been concerned with immigrants’ human rights, while others have concentrated on numbers, statistics, and rhetoric surrounding immigration. The establishment—the ruling class on the Right and the Left—kicked the can of immigration reform down the street for decades. The talk was first centered on the who, why, and how many; both parties wanted restrictions, but they couldn’t agree, or they didn’t want to agree on which ones. As war, corruption, globalization, violence, and instability rose around the world—aided by American interference in some cases—the political Left shifted its concerns steadily toward human rights and lax immigration restrictions. The political Right acknowledged human rights problems, but seemed to reflect concerns that immigration from Central and Latin America was overwhelming the country. In the meantime, the increasingly global and powerful corporations wanted minimal restrictions, cheap labor, and higher profits. Under pressure from these corporations, both sides continued their quest for the magic policy that would satisfy both the American voters and the interest groups.
The deflection snowballed to the point where the immigration problem became so complex and overwhelming that those in power still don’t know how to solve it. Nor do they want to, because like other “political issues” it is one more loaded question the two parties can volley to keep themselves in power and the corporate lobbyists appeased.
That’s not to say that no one talks about it. Of course it’s talked about, but that’s all it is—talk. No one in the ruling class makes decisions; each party took an opposite pole. Immigration is now diminished to those irritable and still-to-be-determined questions of who, why, and how many. DACA is a good illustration of this. The Left and Right’s concept of justice was near enough to each other, that the debate could be, who in terms of people, and how many in terms of numbers. The parties have changed their message in order to stay relevant to their base. Now, the Left and Right’s concepts of justice have diverged and flattened, so that the Left speaks of justice owed to universal humanity, and the Right speaks of justice owed to Americans first. The corporate benefactors of both parties are served by keeping the issue unresolved.
And so for years, immigration has been a thorn in the side of politicians, precisely because of this dualist thinking. But there’s one thing the government doesn’t seem to have considered—a human-centered approach that takes both seriously: the justice owed to Americans and the justice owed to vulnerable people around the world. For this to happen the fundamental principles from which both parties operate must change. It requires looking at immigrants and seeing real human beings with unique human particularity. What the human person longs for is not America as such, but home. People long for home—a place of belonging and dwelling in this world. The immigration issue presents us with the weighty task of carrying out human “home-relief.”
Given this responsibility, we should establish a number of paths toward home. A policy tweak here and a policy tweak there, will not do. Immigration is a human question, and therefore a philosophical question. It is a question that requires the United States (which Hannah Arendt called “a society of job holders”) to move beyond our belief that man—be he a native or would-be immigrant—is a worker looking for a place to make money, and recognize that he is a person looking for a home to inhabit, a dwelling in which to be.
Unfortunately the policy-oriented folk continue to deliberate the who, why, and how many. It is in that vein that Ilya Somin writes his book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, a repacked call for open borders, for a world where man follows his or her own self-interest.
Voting By Ballot and Foot
Voting via the ballot box is valuable, Somin writes, but it doesn’t really give individuals the chance to make a real difference in their lives. Foot voting, on the other hand, “offers individuals a chance to make decisions that actually matter.” By foot voting he means the ability to change one’s course of action. There are three types of foot voting: “Foot voting between jurisdictions in a federal system, foot voting through international migration, and foot voting in the private sector.”
Somin gives two advantages of foot voting: it strengthens individual decisive choice, and encourages the individual to make well-informed decisions. Foot voting outperforms ballot-box voting, he says, because it gives primacy of choice to the individual, with clear and immediate change; it encourages the individual to seek out the knowledge required to make an informed and meaningful choice.
The bulk of the book is on convincing the reader to open his or her mind to an open world. There are three crucial things Somin tries to do to convince his readers of this “higher form of democracy,” as a blurb on the back of the book puts it. He attempts to show how foot voting outperforms ballot-box voting by increasing political freedom, in doing so he dismisses self-determination arguments of native citizens—in a couple of places and in so many words he says that there is no general right for a nation or dominant cultural group to preserve its culture. He does offer “keyhole solutions” to assuage our fears over increasing crime and terrorism should we open all borders. There is some application of his theory throughout the book, here are two examples of his policy suggestions: decentralizing immigration policy to the state or local level; restricting the franchise until immigrants become sufficiently assimilated in order to mitigate against the importation of harmful cultural values.
We don’t need to go through the arguments one by one, because there is only one, or rather there are no arguments, only assertions: Man is a rational being; his actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason; his judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture); if he acts with others it is by his choice alone; he must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest; he has no moral duty to others. As such, man must have the political freedom to follow his self-interest to achieve his happiness. It is autonomous individualism through and through.
What does this look like in the three spheres he considers—the international, the federal, and the private?
In international migration it means no borders so that everyone can move to wherever they want in order to make money and secure themselves financially. Immigrants have no moral duty to stay and build up their country of origin, no moral duty to stay to prevent brain drain. One wonders about moral duty to family—an issue Somin skirts by saying that in the case of the family the decision to migrate would “require the assent of more than one person. But in most cases, there are individuals who can either make the choice all on their own or at least exercise a high degree of influence.” What if native citizens lose jobs and opportunities as a result of immigration? Native workers and immigrants complement each other he says and gives some examples: “native-born chefs can become more productive if combined with immigrant assistants who can help with food preparation. Native-born accountants or architects can be more productive if combined with immigrant tech specialists who make their computers function more efficiently. Native-born professionals with small children can do more work if some of the child care is done by immigrant nannies.”
But what about the native blue-collar workers we may ask. Well, Somin admits that there are, “negative wage and displacements effects on some subcategories of workers, principally the least-educated native workers, such as high school dropouts.” There’s bound to be some “substantial number of ‘losers’ among native workers,” he writes, but these negative effects are modest, “likely outweighed by positive effects.”
Immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial, he claims, and since they sometimes have little or no opportunity to use their talents in their country of origin, they should be free to move here and make money. So if the native citizen is weak, unable to pull himself up and make something of himself, he is less valuable than those who can, so let them in. After all, he argues, there would be enormous amounts of wealth created if we moved to an open world. At one point he says that the world GDP could potentially double if people were free to move around the world.
In the private sector, Somin says people can choose to move to whichever private organization will “offer services similar to those provided by local or regional governments, most notably private planned communities.” Any private sector that can provide “an alternative to the government,” is to be preferred. Basically anything that “allows consumer choice can be a form of foot voting.” In his estimation, that includes charitable organizations, religious institutions, private security services, and the like. In all such areas of life, he argues, people should have foot voting freedom. What about the question of families as private institutions? If a family isn’t providing the services a person wants, one can foot vote by leaving one family to join another or to be alone. He doesn’t reflect on this, but who’s to say the kind of morality he promotes wouldn’t find itself affecting the institution of marriage and family?
What about foot voting within a federal system? Foot voting in this sphere increases political freedom, he writes. This gives the individual the advantage of having multiple regional and local governments to choose from. It creates competition between these jurisdictions, providing more options for the foot voter. My current home state, Arizona, did just this. The state government created incentives to attract people and corporations to relocate here, especially from Oregon, Washington, and California.
Voting Without the Ballot Box
In Somin’s thinking, it’s here we hit a snag between foot voting and ballot-box voting. In order to make one jurisdiction more preferable than another, the political institutions of a given jurisdiction play an important role. For example, here in Arizona, the state could not have enticed workers and corporations to move here if Arizonans hadn’t voted for laws that made it a preferable place to live and conduct business. Somin writes, “foot voters will not have good choices unless ballot box voters are knowledgable enough to incentivize good policies.” Ignorant ballot-box voters are Somin’s bane. Fear not, there’s a way to get around them or get rid of them! The first is to educate them: once they can make well-informed decisions, they will vote for laws that open foot voting for themselves and others. If they continue in their ignorance or if they don’t want to attract foot voters, he suggests ways to get around them, or to override them altogether. That is, until you don’t need them at all.
This can be done by appealing to greedy officials. Since these “subnational governments” need tax revenue to spend on “projects they value, or on efforts to help keep them in power,” they have “incentives to adopt policies that attract foot voting taxpayers and businesses.” Even when ballot-box voters continue in their ignorance to reject these policies, officials can still push through a few of them, “jurisdictions are likely to enact relatively good policies, if only through random variation.” Once those policies are in place, they will attract foot voters and businesses, thus increasing tax revenues. The tax revenues, “can be useful in enriching the officials themselves and their political allies,” he writes. “Thus competition can incentivize local and regional governments to cater to the needs of foot voters, even in the absence of electoral pressure to do so.” What he really means by electoral pressure is electoral desire and consent, as we can see in this jaw-dropping paragraph:
Ballot box voting, could, potentially, be completely dispensed with if it is replaced by some combination of foot voting and nondemocratic political institutions. Foot voters could then choose between jurisdictions run by different types of dictatorships and oligarchies. But I do not deny the strong evidence that democracy generally performs better than nondemocratic government. So I see little justification for replacing democracy with dictatorship or oligarchy, as opposed to constraining it for purposes of enhancing foot voting opportunities.
There’s no need for Straussian reading here folks. This is the tyranny of radical individualism, a naked call for power and money. Somin is willing to use foot voting to override the ballot box. He would subvert the self-determination of native populations everywhere for the self-interest of the foot voter.
In Somin’s world there is no love of place, no value for a sense of belonging, nothing that says, “these particular people live here, and isn’t it wonderful that it is so.” It is a world populated by selfish and self-interested automatons seeking to enrich themselves. Somin’s world is soulless. As a humanist writer this is everything I stand against.
When it comes to immigration, the fundamental questions are not who, why, how many, and from where. The question is: How can we help people find a home? Our choice is not the false dualism of hard restrictions or no restriction; rather it is soft, humane, more discerning restrictions. Contra Somin and others like him, the answer is not no borders, but humane borders; for the rich it isn’t less restrictions so they can enrich themselves, but rather tighter restrictions to prevent them from robbing the nations.
Human beings need attachments and do better with attachments; we need attachment to place, people, tradition, religion, and so on. Which is why the most important task is to work toward the stability of troubled countries of origin where people can keep their attachments without violence, fear, and poverty. Because the more important and foundational right is not the right to move, but the right to stay—to be who you are, where you are, and to dwell with family and kin.
That “right to belong” is the more fundamental, and no one should take it from you. And if it is taken, and there is no other option, then you can exercise the right to move. You move because you can’t stay, not simply because you can. We all have certain rights, but it can sometimes be a higher form of freedom to withhold from exercising them. It leads to greater freedom, to a fulfilling life. This is what we are missing in the immigration debate: That man lives not by reason alone, but by faith, trust, and attachments to others as well. He is not autonomous but needs a home to flourish. His greatest happiness is to love and be loved, not to chase riches and seek his own self-interest.