Arnold Kling  

The Right to Vote and the Right to Leave

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Ibsen Martinez writes about the perception that Chile's economic success is tainted by its origins in the Pinochet regime.


Sadly enough, many people in Latin America who believe in the virtues of free-market economies still argue that it takes a non-elected government to accomplish sustained economic growth.

Chile's relentless success during the last twenty years strengthens the case for democracy by showing that good public policies may not only be understood by a significant majority of the people but also be put to good effect by their elected representatives.

Contrast this "Whig history" of Chile with Mencius Moldbug

Singapore, Dubai and China, for example, all have their secret police - as did the 19th-century Hapsburgs. Each of these governments is very different from the others, but they are all terrified of the W-force. Yet they manage to restrain it, without either falling prey to democracy or opening death camps.

Readers may have noticed that lately I have been inclined to agree with Moldbug. I think that there is a case for skepticism about democracy. The right to vote is not worthless, but people get carried away with the romance of it, as if the "voice of the people" has magical qualities.

Other things equal, it is better to be able to vote the bums out than to have them enjoy dictatorial powers. But other things are not equal. We have turned the right to vote into what CNN so aptly calls the "ballot bowl," a collective religious ritual analogous to the Super Bowl. Except that unlike the Super Bowl, the ballot bowl has far-reaching effects. It sanctifies the power lust of the Universal Spitzer.

What really gives us freedom, and what really puts pressure on politicians to behave in our interest, is the right to leave. In the early days of the United States, I picture the political situation as so fluid that no strong central government was possible. People could move from state to state to evade laws that they did not like. And if they didn't like any of the existing states, they could go west, beyond the boundaries of the United States.

To me, the best hope for libertarians is to strengthen the right to leave. Ideally, leaving would not require packing up and moving. We would have competing government franchises, just as we have competing cell phone networks, and we could change service providers just as easily. Larry Summers would predict that this would lead to a "race to the bottom" in terms of government. I agree that there would be competitive pressure, but I think that we would arrive at something quite different from a bottom.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (15 to date)
liberty writes:

Thats really funny. I just posted on the same subject.

nocountry writes:

Unfortunately the U.S. is among the countries that least respects its citizens' right to leave. Uniquely, the U.S. levies income tax on its non-resident citizens. And there are scary penalties for renouncing ones citizenship.

I say we instate the ancient Greek practice of ostracism. In Athens, a proposal could be drawn up to ostracize one of the citizens -- though we could restrict it to elected officials. If a majority voted for ostracism, the person had to leave the city within ten days, and could not return for ten years. We could institute a kind of national political ostracism, where Senators and Congressmen could face ostracism, not from their state voters, but from the nation at large. Too often locals will keep reelecting some local idiot, while the rest of the nation sees how bad the person is. With national ostracism, we could nationally throw people out of office and prohibit them from running again for ten years. We would have to come up with some sort of difficult selection process -- like collect a certain number of votes nationwide within the election year -- so that everyone's not getting ostracized in retaliatory cycles or whatever, but I think it could be made to work. I have politicians in mind who I know wouldn't be around anymore if we had ostracism.

TGGP writes:

Bryan Caplan discussed Chile in the idea trap.

Troy, your plan seems to have all the flaws of democracy, plus it further erodes federalism. I see nothing to recommend it.

CliffPape writes:

You make a very good point. However, to stir up enough support for such a change you would surely land in a mental instition or worse sitting with a representive of the CIA.

patri Friedman writes:

wow, Arnold, you're talking like an anarcho-capitalist!

The problem I see is that the state is unlikely to let you increase your freedom of leaving in a virtual, ancap sense. There is no incremental path there. The state is jealous of its monopolies and zealous in defending them. Our best chance is to take advantage of the fact that their monopoly is geographic in nature, and actually leave. And make sure we go somewhere (the oceans, or space) where geographic monopolies are inherently hard to enforce, so it doesnt just happen again.

I'd love to be able to choose govt franchises without leaving California, but I just dont see it happening.

Worked for the ancient Athenians. I suggest making it difficult to avoid it being overly used, and thus overly eroding federalism. At the same time, someone outside a system can oftentimes see hat is wrong inside a system than can someone inside it. I see it more as an extra check-and-balance added to the system to make it even more difficult for government to do anything.

Publius writes:

Ostracism was a terrible idea, that played a role in Athens' eventual destruction. Some of the greatest political and military leaders (emphasis on the latter) of Athens were lost to ostracism.

Ostracism is an excellent way for factions to kick out the most threatening (and often, most brilliant) member of the opposing faction.

Success by the unconnected is essentially punished, and you end up handing over your navy and warmaking powers to politician sons and nephews, which seldom ends well.

So sure, if you want the unconnected few, who the connected incumbents find most threatening, banished henceforth from the kingdom of America -- ostracism should fit you fine. Your neighbors will be better for it.

larry writes:

I agree with Patri Friedman. The state is loathe to lose its grasp on your money. The US government and state governments will try to keep you on their tax rolls.

An example of this phenomenon is the people who retire from places like DC or NYC to Florida (which has no state personal income tax). The DC and NYC revenue departments make great efforts to try to keep these people paying their income taxes after they have moved away and changed their domicile.

Kurbla writes:

"best hope for libertarians is to strengthen the right to leave."

It is something many non libertarians could agree easily. The majority of political systems can only benefit if those who do not like them leave. One should even have a right to some kind of a reasonable compensation for his contribution to public goods he left in the state he leaves, in some [although rare] cases even in territory; the situation is, in many aspects analogous to the divorce. But it is more protection from the group than protection from politicians - even if democracy is perfect, the concept is still valid.

Kurbla writes:

Ostracism can be - theoretically - founded in individual right to leave; in community of 1000 people, 999 of them can express the wish to leave. In that case, community should be abolished, its public goods divided on 1000 parts of an equal value, and 999 can agree to reunite the same moment and one wouldn't be allowed to join to the new community. He will be left out, but with wealth equal to his private property + 1/1000 of communal goods. I skipped over details, but principle is simple. Of course, it is only theoretical construction, in practice the right to ostracism might result in who knows what.

That was precisely the problem with Athenian ostracism: it was tied up in factionalism and involved the lawmakers. A federalist ostracism could be set up to overcome those kinds of problems. One could require a supermajority. One could require that it originate with the people. One could use it just for the two houses of Congress, to prevent problems with the Presidency (which faces the possibility of impeachment, after all -- which is a kind of ostracism).

Ben Kalafut writes:

What we ought to strive to avoid is an increase in the respectability of "if you don't like it, then leave" as a retort against calls for reform. While the right to "vote with one's feet" certainly establishes a mechanism for competition between governments, I don't think we want to live in a society or a world in which those who would like to see e.g. the tax code reformed or marijuana liberalized are expected to pack up, sever themselves from their community, move 500 miles, and find a new livelihood.

A conundrum also presents itself: would a "voting with one's feet" mechanism have a positive or negative effect on immigration policy?

Helder writes:

Ideally, leaving would not require packing up and moving. We would have competing government franchises, just as we have competing cell phone networks, and we could change service providers just as easily. Larry Summers would predict that this would lead to a "race to the bottom" in terms of government. I agree that there would be competitive pressure, but I think that we would arrive at something quite different from a bottom.

Switzerland is pretty close to this. A very light (seven members I think), low tax federal government and competing Cantons with enormous gopverning powers and you can move around freely.

David writes:

We kind of have ostracism now. Conservatives are run out of office by the media or corrupt district attorney on trumped up charges that never see a court.

For example, Newt Gingrich was run out of town by the press. Tom Delay was run out by a runaway district attorney who got a grand jury to indict him. Note, the case has never come to court and never will.

My point is this: you may not agree with these people, so vote them out. Instead, we have this non-democratic witch hunt to do the job for the left.

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