What Americans choose when they vote with their feet

March 24

Josh Blackman has an interesting post on what Americans choose when they vote with their feet, building on economist Tyler Cowen’s recent book Average is Over. Cowen argues that recent migration patterns show that most movers prefer job opportunities, lower taxes, and cheaper housing over zoning regulations and more extensive government services:

Why is Texas so popular? For a long time the state has had one of America’s highest murder rates and it has a high property crime rate. The weather is warm but it is not a calm warm-weather state, given the storms and tornados. Sometimes it is too warm, such as during the thirty-five straight days over a hundred degrees in July and August 2011 in the Dallas– Fort Worth area; worse yet, that wasn’t a record. Texas is skimpy on welfare benefits and Medicaid coverage, and 27 percent of the state has no health insurance coverage….

What Texas does have is very cheap housing and a decent record of job creation (you don’t have to credit this to any particular Texas governor, any more than you should blame governors for the high murder rate). In other words, if you live in Texas, your locale will offer C-grade public services but you may have more cash in your pocket than if you lived somewhere else. You have a better chance of finding a job and will surely find cheaper housing….

The cheap housing doesn’t just come from Texas’s having a lot of land; there is another factor, namely that zoning in Texas is relatively weak. For instance, Houston doesn’t have traditional zoning. You might find an office tower, a used-record store, and a whorehouse all right next to your home. Houstonians live with that, and since home prices are reasonable the relatively wealthy can insulate themselves from the less pleasant consequences of mixed-use neighborhoods. In any case, the absence of zoning makes the homes cheaper….

[H]ere is a more fundamental, apparently apparently obvious, and yet still underappreciated lesson: People really like extra cash in their pocket. They like that cash in their pocket more than our politicians wish were the case….

Since there is considerable net in-migration to Texas, I conclude that a lot of Americans would rather have some more cash than better public services. The other states experiencing significant in-migration are in the South and the less expensive parts of the West. For the most part, those are affordable states with decent job creation records, subpar public services on the whole, and cheap housing.

More systematic evidence from both the United States and Europe also shows that people tend to migrate towards jurisdictions with greater economic freedom, lower taxes, and cheaper housing. Moreover, this pattern is not primarily driven by the wealthy, but by middle class and working class movers. For example, housing and job opportunities are the main reasons why many working and middle class black New Yorkers have been moving to the South in recent years, reversing the “Great Migration” of the early to mid twentieth century.

As Cowen suggests, much of this is driven by a preference for “more cash in your pocket.” Even topnotch public services often are not as good as being able to choose what services you want for yourself by shopping in the private sector. The person who chooses services for himself can take advantage of a wider range of options, and can more easily tailor the choices to his and his family’s particular needs.

The evidence does not prove that foot voters prefer completely libertarian states. Not even the most free market-oriented US state government (usually New Hampshire, which has attracted large numbers of migrants as a result) is close to being a libertarian utopia. But it does suggest that movers prefer relatively greater economic freedom among the options currently available from different state and local governments.

In this essay, and in my recent book Democracy and Political Ignorance, I discuss extensive evidence indicating that people’s foot voting decisions are usually better-informed than the choices they make when voting at the ballot box.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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