The ‘Right to Move’ is Essential to Political Freedom, Ilya Somin Argues

“There are such things in the world as human rights,” Frederick Douglass said in an 1869 speech.

They rest upon no conventional foundation but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike.

-Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

Ilya Somin, law professor at George Mason University, quotes Douglass’s speech in the introduction to his new book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. For Douglass, Somin explains, laws barring immigration and laws permitting slavery had a fundamental similarity:

“[B]oth restricted ‘locomotion’ and ‘the right of migration’ on the basis of arbitrary circumstances of birth—in one case race, in the other geography.”

– Ilya Somin

Free to Move makes a convincing case that the right of migration is as essential to political freedom as voting at the ballot box. By choosing where to live, people make a powerful choice about how they want to live.

Professor Somin spoke to the Institute for Humane Studies about his book. “My book argues that it would be a good thing to expand people’s ability to vote with their feet, both domestically and internationally,” Professor Somin said. His argument challenges conventional thinking on both sides.

On the right, people tend to embrace domestic migration—moving to a new state to avoid high taxes, for example—but disdain international migration; and while those on the left tend to embrace international migration, “they’re somewhat suspicious of internal foot voting,” Professor Somin said.

Is your decision to move really a political decision? Even if we’re not conscious of “voting with our feet,” that’s often what we’re doing when we move, Somin explains. For example: if you’re moving to find a better job or cheaper housing, “those factors are heavily influenced by government policy—by labor regulation, taxation, land use restrictions, and so forth. “

“There’s a long history of people, when they make internal migration decisions, taking account of public policy aspects. Famous examples include the so-called great migration of African-Americans to the North and the West, which was in large part driven by the fact that those states were not racially discriminatory under policy to the extent that Southern states were.”

Washington Post columnist George Will has praised Free to Move, writing: “Ilya Somin shows that mobility—the freedom to move from here to there—might be the most underrated underpinning of a free society.”

For more information on the Institute for Humane Studies, our faculty and graduate programs, and our funding opportunities, visit TheIHS.org.

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