Tiebout Goes Global: International Migration As a Tool for Voting with Your Feet

19 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2020 Last revised: 13 Feb 2020

See all articles by Ilya Somin

Ilya Somin

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty

Date Written: February 10, 2020


Students of federalism have long recognized that citizens in a federal system can “vote with their feet” by moving from one jurisdiction to another. Those oppressed or harmed by the policies of one regional government can improve their lot by moving to another. Such “exit rights” are an important alternative to traditional “voice”-based political participation through voting. In a classic 1956 article, Charles Tiebout pointed out that foot voting can also help citizens find jurisdictions that more closely approximate their preferred mix of taxes and public services. However, scholars have so far failed to systematically consider the implications of foot voting and the Tiebout model for international migration. Although much research addresses the economic and human rights issues raised by movement across international boundaries, there has been very little discussion of its utility as a form of political participation through exit rights.

In this article, I make a tentative effort to plug this hole in the literature. I suggest that the benefits of international foot voting may well be much larger than those of free movement within national borders. Part II briefly summarizes the theory of foot voting and its potential benefits. In Part III, I show how these benefits are potentially much greater international migration than for domestic migration within advanced democracies.

Part IV considers some possible implications for migration law. Current international law requires nations to allow their citizens free exit, but does not require free entrance except in extremely limited circumstances. Unfortunately, the frequent denial of entry rights greatly undercuts the value of exit rights. To reap the full benefits of international foot voting, barriers to entry should be reduced. The considerations advanced in this paper do not provide a comprehensive theory of international migration rights. A full analysis would require a comprehensive balancing of the benefits of free migration against its costs. The advantages of foot voting do, however, provide an important consideration in favor of opening borders more than might otherwise be desirable.

Keywords: foot voting, Voting with your feet, federalism, political freedom, immigration, migration, Tiebout, democracy

JEL Classification: F16, F22, K33, K37, P48, H10, H11

Suggested Citation

Somin, Ilya, Tiebout Goes Global: International Migration As a Tool for Voting with Your Feet (February 10, 2020). Missouri Law Review, Vol. 73, No. 4, 2008 (Symposium on Federalism and International Law), George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 08-62, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3535767 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3535767

Ilya Somin (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty ( email )

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HOME PAGE: http://sls.gmu.edu/ilya-somin/

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