Exit Stage Right

I have been quiet lately due to a major move—my second in seven years. Relocating is a daunting task, one that seems to become more difficult later in life, if only due to inertia and the accumulation of “stuff.” Travails can sometimes be a “teaching moment,” and so it is here. My recent moves—from California to Texas, and now to Tennessee—illustrate one of the benefits of federalism. In the vernacular of noted sociologist Albert O. Hirschman, when it became clear that my political “voice” was irrelevant in the progressive enclaves of southern California and then Austin, I decided to exercise the prerogative of mobility inherent in our federal system: I voted with my feet and exited to more congenial environs.

Residents of high-tax, poorly governed, and liberal-dominated states, such as California, Illinois, and New York, increasingly relocate elsewhere, often to the Sunbelt. People do so for a variety of reasons. Approximately 40 million Americans move each year, a decision that used to be driven mainly by climate considerations, particularly involving residents of the Snow Belt—and especially retirees—seeking warmer weather. Today, more and more Americans of all ages migrate internally for economic reasons (lower taxes, a better job market, and cheaper housing). Some, like me, are political refugees—escaping partisan hegemony in their home state that runs contrary to their preferences. In all these respects, mobility enables Americans to improve their well-being by pursuing more attractive opportunities elsewhere in this magnificent, sprawling country.

Jurisdictions depend on taxpayers to finance government operations, and losing too many residents to more attractive destinations can have adverse consequences to states exhibiting significant outbound migration. When excessive regulation, progressive policies, and high taxes drive residents to move to other states, a form of interstate competition is at work. States with sensible regulations and low taxes (such as Texas, Arizona, and Florida) draw productive taxpayers at the expense of the failed blue states. Businesses often relocate for similar reasons. Not only do the shrinking states lose jobs, human capital, and tax revenues–internal population shifts can also lead to the loss of congressional seats in reapportionment. In theory, this serves as a constraint on dysfunctional governance at the state and local level, but accountability is elusive, bailouts and excuses are pervasive, and elective politics are an imperfect “market.”

Residents who relocate for political reasons—leaving a state in which they were in the minority, consistently outvoted by the majority—can improve their level of psychic satisfaction by settling in a congenial polity. This phenomenon was the subject of a 2008 book, The Big Sort. At the end of my 30 years of residence in California, and later in Austin, I felt largely disenfranchised by the political process. I was so outnumbered by liberal Democrats that my vote (my “voice” in Hirschman’s parlance) didn’t matter.

I felt alienated. Not only did my preferred candidates usually lose, but I was regarded as an outlier in my neighborhood for daring to have a pro-Republican yard sign. In ultra-liberal Austin, my neighbors viewed my support for Ted Cruz over Beto O’Rourke for Senate in 2018 as an anti-social act, one which prompted cold stares and even hostile comments from these smug progressives. Fear of having my car vandalized made displaying even innocuous bumper stickers out of the question. To avoid harassment, the badly outnumbered conservatives in Austin are forced to go underground—like being behind enemy lines.

As Milton Friedman noted in Capitalism and Freedom, the simple arithmetic of democracy favors subsidiarity: the smaller the unit of government, the fewer voters who “lose” in the majoritarian political process. Moreover, despite the significant transaction costs associated with relocation (movers, real estate commissions, closing costs), it is far easier to move from one city to another, or even from one state to another, to avoid an unpalatable political climate, than it is to move to another country. Even if it is a practical option for their lives, few people wish to become expatriates.

Todd Zywicki succinctly summarized Friedman’s argument at Law & Liberty in 2012:

Federalism protects liberty by enabling us to exit jurisdictions that provide services inefficiently to others but that the threat of exit itself may constrain government behavior. By contrast, it is very difficult to exit when Washington acts—which Friedman notes is precisely why many of those on the left prefer national action.

Importantly, federalism also minimizes electoral “disappointment”—a political counterpart to consumer welfare. A conservative Republican will find his vote “cancelled” less often (or not at all) in a state comprised of a like-minded majority, and same principle applies for liberal Democrats. This is the genius of federalism. Mobility—the essence of the freedom of association—can reduce political discord. Americans hold widely varying opinions on a host of topics: abortion, public safety, economic regulation, traditional morality, and the ideal amount of government spending, to cite just a few examples. Some voters support abortion on demand, late-term abortions, taxpayer-funded abortion, and abortion for minors without parental consent. Others oppose all those things. A national policy will satisfy some factions but leave a large number bitterly disappointed.

For instance, if abortion was regulated entirely at the state level (as it was prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973), voters in each state could decide what policy to adopt. Some states would outlaw it altogether, others would aggressively promote it, and many would enact policies somewhere in the middle. Voters who were resolutely pro-life could move to a state that reflected their views (if they did not already reside in such a place), and the same is true for resolutely pro-choice voters. The overall number of disgruntled voters could be reduced. Justice Louis Brandeis described the role of states within the patchwork quilt of federalism as the “laboratories of democracy.”

Federalism teaches that unless policies are expressly forbidden by the U.S. Constitution, states ought to be permitted to “experiment” as they wish. Political differences among the states are inevitable, and even desirable. California does not have to resemble Texas (or Utah, or Oklahoma), and vice versa. Ardent progressives are free to enact policies at the state and local level, even if they seem quite radical, and even if they produce deleterious consequences. Unlike Brandeis, a Progressive who favored state and local initiatives, the modern Left typically pushes for national policy initiatives, at the federal level, in order better to disguise the disastrous consequences, and to prevent disgruntled citizens from fleeing the resulting failures. Liberals, like socialists, abhor competition because it reduces the control of central planners. So far, progressives have had to settle for piecemeal implementation of their social justice agenda, beginning with left-leaning urban centers.

The policies regarding homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle are examples of this, and much of the crime problem in cities such as Chicago and Baltimore is attributable to lax policing and law enforcement. Yet, unless reined in by the state legislature, local governments are responsible only to local voters. In a democracy, the voters determine who will represent them, and how. Objectors unable to affect the outcome of elections can move, as I did when I abandoned California and Austin.

Alas, the mobility inherent in federalism is not an unalloyed blessing. As objectors leave a jurisdiction, such as California, it tends to become more insular and monolithic. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton carried California by over 30 points, a lopsided 2-to-1 margin of victory in which Clinton defeated Donald Trump by over 4.2 million votes. This, in a state that twice elected Ronald Reagan governor! Through out-migration and otherwise, the Golden State has changed dramatically in recent decades.

The overwhelmingly Democratic electorate in California is not so much a sober check on elected officials as a cheering section for trendy policies. (Due to the state’s non-partisan “open primary,” in which the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election, regardless of party affiliation, there is often no Republican candidate on the ballot for statewide office. For instance, when Kamala Harris ran for the U.S. Senate in 2016, her opponent was another Democrat, not a Republican.) Without any significant opposition, Democrats’ proposals do not face meaningful scrutiny and debate. In politics, as in economics, competition improves the outcome.

In lopsided urban enclaves, such as New York City, the influence of special interests (e.g., public employee unions) is increased. As middle-class citizens flee deteriorating cities (such as Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, and Flint), the quality of municipal governance generally declines. Chaos and corruption often increase. Once a city or state achieves maximum “wokeness,” laissez-faire policies toward criminality (including declarations of “sanctuary” status for undocumented immigrants) jeopardize public safety and accelerate the exodus of residents concerned about rising lawlessness. These demographic shifts, once implemented, are difficult to reverse.

In the past, most Americans lived and died within a 50-mile radius of their place of birth. They had longstanding, familial ties to their community and were invested in its long-term success. Hirschman called this “loyalty.” When people disagreed with their neighbors, they typically did so without rancor or spite. An increasingly mobile populace can get up and move at will—and often does. This is “exit.” The result may be an increasingly-polarized national electorate, separated into solidly “red” and “blue” states, with a few hotly-contested “purple” ones dictating the outcome of presidential elections.

In partisan strongholds there is less meaningful “voice” than there used to be; social media and cable news fuel the creation of ideological silos, discourse is often replaced with denunciation, and neighbors—within the self-segregated homogeneous enclaves enabled by fluid political migration—no longer seek a middle ground. Extreme polarization strains the national fabric and frustrates the goal of unity—E pluribus unum.

Notwithstanding these caveats, federalism is a key check on government power. My only regret about moving to Tennessee is that I didn’t do it sooner.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on November 11, 2019 at 07:35:58 am

I say in five years you move to Wyoming because Tennessee is a "Liberal enclave" #ItAintUs #itsYOU

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donald paluga
on November 11, 2019 at 07:49:03 am

Welcome to the real world.

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Max Hocutt
on November 11, 2019 at 10:26:54 am

Truly sorry to see you leave Central Texas, but a modest relocation 15 miles west (to the Austin exburg of Dripping Springs [Hays County]) or north (Liberty Hill [Williamson County]) would have put you in more "normal" parts of Texas that are still bright red, where Trump signs predominate and local politicians still show up at gun shows (to shake hands, not to protest).

Heck, the western portions of Travis County are pretty red: I live just west of the Austin City Limits (inside its extra territorial jurisdiction, but for a lot of reasons Austin is unlikely to ever try and annex my area), and my congressman, state senator, state rep., and county commissioner are all GOP conservatives. While there are some ninnies on the local school board, the school district (Eanes ISD) has pretty much avoided the PC craze, and is still regarded as one of the best in the nation.

Yes, Austin city politics are a clown show, but it's been that way forever (recall Austin was electing city councilmen who were on the Socialist ticket in the 1970's). But despite some very poor management lately from the state GOP leadership, the GOP remains in control of the statehouse, and as Gov. Abbott's latest moves show, state government is more than able to rein in the Austin crazies when they go too far. And fortunately, the Texas Constitution is structured in such a way to make it very, very hard to change things.

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on November 11, 2019 at 11:05:42 am

Shudda moved to Houston.

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on November 11, 2019 at 12:28:04 pm

In 2018, Beto beat Ted Cruz in every major city in Texas, including Fort Worth. Even the once-solid suburbs went for Beto, including Hays, Williamson, and Tarrant counties. Every judge in Travis County is a liberal Democrat. Texas is shifting to the left.

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Mark Pulliam
on November 11, 2019 at 14:34:18 pm

It's disappointing that Mr. Pulliam would succumb to employing the obfuscating term "undocumented immigrants" in place of the correct and frank "illegal aliens."

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on November 11, 2019 at 15:09:48 pm

Welcome to Tennessee. We love it here. AK to WA to TX to TN myself.

But soon, very soon, we need to stop telling them how good it is here. ;)

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on November 11, 2019 at 15:16:23 pm

Certainly, Travis County is shifting Left. In 2018, the Dhimmicrats dropped $81 million on Bobby's campaign, twice what Cruz spent, plus millions more from the Texas Forever super-PAC. And Bobby still lost.

Unless Bobby wants to run against Cornyn, I don't know which charismatic Texas Dhimmicrat will step forward.

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on November 11, 2019 at 15:20:35 pm

"Texas is shifting to the left."

In the major cities, yes. But the 'burbs remain Red. Collin County is very much so (Plano, Richardson, McKinney)

Rural Texas will resist 'the stupid' for a long time. We want a Beta O'Dork to try and take 'em. Like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, "..to watch 'em die..."!

But off to Tennesse with you, take your scent of carpetbagger with you.

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R Daneel
on November 11, 2019 at 15:43:58 pm

Talking about relocating: I'm 80 y.o. and the only time in my life that I experienced climate change was when I moved from New Jersey to Arizona.

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William Letendre, Jr.
on November 11, 2019 at 16:23:14 pm

"Keep Austin weird" has been a thing for decades. Don't judge Texas by Austin.

That said, ALL large cities are have been moving left for at least 2 decades now, and while I can guess at some of the reasons, I'm sure there are plenty of factors no one really understands.

It's certainly frustrating to people who actually want the world to keep working well.

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on November 11, 2019 at 16:24:39 pm

the author is so "conservative" he can't even use the term "illegal alien".

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Arfer Bailey
on November 11, 2019 at 16:31:38 pm

Ask Konni Burton and Matt Rinaldi how solidly Red the suburbs are. Chip Roy barely squeaked out a win in a “safe” district that Lamar Smith had previously swept by landslide margins. As for a carpetbagger’s scent, I lived in Texas for 10 years, the first stint in the late 1970s. And I hale from the same state as Dan Patrick.

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Mark Pulliam
on November 11, 2019 at 16:43:48 pm

Hope you didn't move into Memphis, Nashville or Knoxville. Otherwise you will be right back in the same boat

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on November 11, 2019 at 16:44:07 pm

I apologize. The correct term is “illegal alien.”

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Mark Pulliam
on November 11, 2019 at 16:56:33 pm

Wyoming is not a place where there is much margin for those unwilling to support themselves. Unfortunately it is also not a place for the weak. A long and windy winter. Not truly a very cold winter (occasional true cold spell but that does not happen in every winter nor for long when it does happen) but that gets overlooked because of the wind and the sheer length of the cold weather season.

On the other hand people in Wyoming have a tendency to watch for one another to an extent no longer found in areas that have turned "blue." After forty years in Wyoming my MD convinced me (after years of trying) that I needed to move to a lower altitude and I have found that Idaho is a wonderful place, Boise notwithstanding.

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Theo Moore
on November 11, 2019 at 17:44:48 pm

When you get your fill of mountain air, Smokey trails, beautiful mountains, gorgeous autumn leaves, cold damp winters, icy roads, Confederate BS, Bible Belt and hillbilly y'all this 'n that, you may relocate to the best city in the west: Prescott Arizona! Then again, don't miss Dollyworld.

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sw lusk
on November 11, 2019 at 17:52:14 pm

Hopefully you were playing this song when you left Los Angeles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLAuzVb-C_o

I left California three times: 1985 to Turin, Italy; 1991 to Great Falls, VA; 1998 to Phoenix, AZ.

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jim sarina
on November 11, 2019 at 18:11:36 pm

One can make a reasonable argument that the term should be "hostile foreign invader".

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Subotai Bahadur
on November 11, 2019 at 18:15:23 pm

The problem with people who flee blue states is that they bring their misguided politics to their new homes...and eventually to there what they did in their last evirons...someone needs to activate Glenn Reynolds of instapundit fame's welcome wagon to teach the vast majority of those leaving blue states WHY their states suck.

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Rich Vail
on November 11, 2019 at 18:18:30 pm

Yep, as someone "stuck" in WA (south of that shithole Seattle), I can tell you that "You BETTER stop telling folks how great it is there. Seattle used to do that and look how it ended up.

Also, for all those folks who are proposing to move many Federal Agencies out into the hinterlands, I must ask:

"Are you crazy. Do you want all those insipid muddleheaded Leftist bureaucrats suddenly descending upon your town?

Pretty soon the nasty little buggers will have brought their "significant others" (and I do mean *others*, i.e., all manner of weirdos) with them and will have taken over your town /state.

No better to jam them all into the DC Metro area and let them destroy that little enclave.


Good to see you back.

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on November 11, 2019 at 19:49:58 pm


Precisely what happened in Seattle.
Used to be a columnist that referred to all the recent arrivals from California as *Cali-fornicators*; he was right! However, he was not prescient enough to predict all of the newly approved means of fornicating!

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on November 11, 2019 at 19:52:22 pm

Here now is THE solution froma candidate for Mayor of Boise, Idaho"


Build a WALL for Californicators!

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on November 12, 2019 at 02:51:21 am

The author's mention of "purple states" brings to mind a historical precedent in American history - "poor, bleeding Kansas" in the 1850s.

With control of the US Senate a delicate balance between slave states and free, the issue of slavery in the soon-to-be state of Kansas was to be decided by future voters in Kansas. Both sides rushed in supporters whose bloody clashes included John Brown's early murders and the James Gang.

So far, political violence has been focused on very blue cities like Portland but when political control of purple states becomes of political necessity for progressives, we might just see political violence intended to secure political outcomes.

Watch for it.

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Joseph Somsel
on November 13, 2019 at 09:24:40 am

“For instance, if abortion was regulated entirely at the state level (as it was prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973)”,

This would not change the fact that can be known through both The True Faith, and True reason, that regardless of location, a human person can only conceive a human person, thus every son or daughter of a human person, from the moment of their conception, can only be, in essence, a human person, or that marriage cannot in essence both be and not be, existing in relationship as husband and wife, simultaneously.

Therein lies the crux of the matter.

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on November 13, 2019 at 13:54:31 pm

With the Anschluss of Nevada by Kalifornia during the mid-terms, we are heading up to Montana next quarter. Nevada is already massively changing & suffering under the Dhimmicrats rule. Like a malignant cancer, they don’t waste time. Figure Montana is where we will make our ‘last stand’ (so to speak).

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.