Arnold Kling on Freedom as Exit

Arnold Kling riffs off my post on charter cities, in particular my mention of the possibility that illiberal regimes might have free-ish markets while granting their subjects little “real freedom.” Arnold asks:

[W]hat is this “real freedom” of which you speak?

Consider the following definition of freedom: the absence of monopoly.

The absence of monopoly means that you can exercise exit, even if you cannot exercise voice. The presence of monopoly means that, at most, you can exercise voice.

Neither my local supermarket nor any of its suppliers has a way for me to exercise voice. They don’t hold elections. They don’t have town-hall meetings where they explain their plans for what will be in the store. By democratic standards, I am powerless in the supermarket.

And yet, I feel much freer in the supermarket than I do with respect to my county, state, or federal government. For each item in the supermarket, I can choose whether to put it into my cart and pay for it or leave it on the shelf. I can walk out of the supermarket at any time and go to a competing grocery.

The exercise of voice, including the right to vote, is not the ultimate expression of freedom. Rather, it is the last refuge of those who suffer under a monopoly. If we take it as given that the political jurisdiction where I reside is a monopoly, then perhaps I will have more influence over that monopoly if I have a right to vote and a right to organize opposition than if I do not. However, as my forthcoming Unchecked and Unbalanced argues, the reality is that the amount of influence I have is shrinking while the scope of the monopolist is growing.

I think there’s a lot that’s on the right track here, but also a good deal of confusion.

“Absence of monopoly” is an attractive definition of freedom only to an anarchist who insists on begging the big questions. A world in which I am bullied and coerced by lots of different people may be a world without monopoly, but that’s not a world of freedom. And Arnold is wrong that “the absence of monopoly means that you can exercise exit.” Suppose you’re in an anarchocapitalist world (a world in which we do not “take it as given that the political jurisdiction where I reside is a monopoly.”) You live in a house on a piece of property boxed in on all sides by other pieces of property. Each owner of an adjacent property has credibly committed to shooting you if you trespass on her land. There is no collusion between property-owners. They’re just independently jealous of their property rights. Here you have a situation where there is an absence of monopoly and an inability to exercise exit.

Perhaps you’ll say, “Why can’t you cut a deal with with one of the property owners?” Good question. But negotiation is voice, not exit.

Exercising the right to vote may not be the “ultimate” expression of freedom, but it is an expression of freedom. And the exercise of voice more generally is an ultimate expression of freedom if anything is, isn’t it? One thing you might want to do with your freedom is to say your piece. In fact, saying your piece is almost certainly something you’ll want to do with your freedom. People need each other. The main instrument of human survival and flourishing is social cooperation. Cooperation requires negotiation, the exchange of reasons, voice.

Of course, exit is also an ultimate expression of freedom. One thing you might want to do with your freedom is walk away. And threatening to walk away can be a powerfully effective exercise of voice. But you’re not going to profit much from life in society if all you ever do is walk away. Sometimes you can’t walk away, even if you want to, and even if there is no monopoly. Sometimes you’re boxed in by other people’s property or other people’s unwelcoming attitudes. Sometimes you’ve got to ask permission, win an argument, or cut a deal. That’s voice.

I think it’s hugely important to promote greater awareness and activism on behalf of the human rights to free movement and association, which entail the right to exit political jurisdictions. One way to tell if a country is minimally free is to ask whether its residents are free to emigrate — free to walk away. If an illiberal state allows a charter city, and allows some of its citizens to move there, that’s great. The added option, for those who get it, may represent a real gain in freedom. But I think Arnold and I would agree that even if some people are granted permission to move to a semi-independent charter city within their country’s boundaries, if they don’t have a right to walk away from their country altogether, then they don’t have “real freedom.” And I would also say, though perhaps Arnold would not, that citizens of a state do not have “real freedom” if they are denied the right to voice their opinion about the laws, or are denied the right to have some formal role in shaping the system in which they live their lives.

I’ve noticed that Arnold complains a lot about Montgomery Country, MD, but as far as I know hasn’t moved. What’s more, the U.S. won’t keep him from leaving, and there are many other political jurisdictions that would receive him. We could say that Wal-Mart has a monopoly on the land Wal-Mart sits on. But if Arnold is free to leave Wal-Mart and head to Target (which is the monopolist of its own little plot) neither has a monopoly in the relevant sense. Well, Arnold is free to leave Montgomery County for a different county. He is free to leave the U.S. for a different country. But he doesn’t do it. Isn’t this like complaining about Wal-Mart but refusing to walk away and shop somewhere else? What is he asking for? A Target inside Wal-Mart? The benefit of more choices without the bother of going anywhere to get them? Maybe Arnold is already sure that things are no better in other jurisdictions. But if there are 100 movie companies and none make movies that I like, does it it make sense to complain using the language of monopoly?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

39 thoughts

  1. Will, although I respect your arguments in general, your thoughts are scattered a bit on this topic. In your counterexample, is a cartel supposed to be different from a monopoly? Simply because it's an uncoordinated one? I'm not sure you can get away with that semantic legerdemain and score the points you would like to. Yes, it's a de facto monopoly. And to bring up negotiation as an example of “voice” is like bringing up singing or joke telling. Is all conversation an exercise of voice? I believe the subset that really matters in this debate is voting. Contractual agreements are not relevant examples of “voice.” Total non sequitur, I'm afraid. You keep extolling the benefits of democracy, especially as you try to distance your self from an-cap to forge your liberaltarian coalition. You say stuff like only a true liberal would support democracy. But then you never offer a theory of democracy! This could be anything from majority rule to supermajority rule. You've professed admiration for James Buchanan, but then you never write about where you stand on the Calculus of Consent. How much democracy is necessary? Is the US Constitution the optimal framework? On all these important questions, you are remarkably silent. Instead, you continue to harp on about how democracy is good. Yes, but what kind and how much? Finally, who cares where Arnold Kling lives and why he continues to live there. Your fascination with that is strange. I'd say ad hominem, but you should know better.

  2. Will, I feel like you're falling into the trap of dichotomous thinking on this issue. Consider instead a continuum of the “ability” or “cost” (broadly defined) to exit (as long as you haven't committed a serious offense). On one end of the spectrum you have North Korea, where the cost to exit is almost enormous. On the other end of the spectrum is the “cost to exit” your hotel room in Miami. Somewhere in the middle are things like “moving from one US town to the next one over” or “moving from one condo to another”. Thus the “cost to exit” the United States entirely, for most people, is probably fairly high (though nowhere near NK, of course). I think the point is to try and create a place where those costs are low either within the space (charter city) or from space to space (Seastead).I disagree more or less entirely with the notion that having a vote gives me any degree of freedom. It could be said, loosely, that it gives “the society” a degree of freedom, but societies aren't free – people are free. The degree to which my say affects anything is the degree to which I am actually free, and if Steven Landsburg ( is to be trusted, then my vote is pretty much insignificant.There does seem to be a very strong moral intuition about voting though, which makes it feel very right to do so, particularly to Philosophers. (…)

  3. Mike, You can't get out of the counterexample by saying “it's a de facto monopoly” It's not a monopoly of any kind. If there is no collusion, there is no cartel. If no one will sell me water because I'm black, I guess I could say that problem is monopoly, since all the racists taken together have cornered the market for water, but I think it's more natural to say that my problem is racism.If negotiation isn't voice, nothing is. It's a paradigm case of voice. It looks like you're just committed to denying the possibility of counterexamples.I don't need to give you a theory of democracy to show that the almost all of the best places that have ever existed for human beings to live in are democracies.

  4. Max,I think most libertarians would want to say that there is a qualitative difference between coercion and non-coercion that is not reducible to a difference in cost. That is to say, “Your money or your life” isn't generally construed as a legitimate offer of two choices with different costs. The difference between NK and the US in terms of the right to emigrate is a moral difference. Anyway, the cost of exiting the US is very low relative to average incomes. More Americans don't leave because they are “loyal,” to mention the third element in Hirschmann's scheme. In isolation, having a vote gives you almost no power to do anything other than vote. But a system where people have votes allows them coordinate with other people to peacefully change government when it threatens their values. People tend to value freedom, though maybe less than you would like. No matter: you are almost certainly more free in a system where people have votes than in a system where people don't.

  5. Prior to a few hundred years ago, would a monarchist be justified in asserting the following?”I don't need to give you a theory of monarchy to show that [] almost all of the best places that have ever existed for human beings to live in are monarchies.”Also see: Anthony de Jasay on Empirical Evidence, Chap. 5, Justice and Its Surroundings

  6. [tried to edit the above comment to include the following line but it doesn't show up]What would this assertion tell us, if anything, about the desirability of monarchy relative to alternative social arrangements?

  7. It would tell us that those promoting alternative arrangements bear the argumentative burden. Locke had the burden not Filmer. If antidemocrats manage to come up with some good arguments, maybe they can win the debate. Until then, they continue to lose.

  8. Yes your problem is racism, but will having a vote free you? Will it get you the water you desire? Other things being equal, I would rather move to a nation where racism isn't a problem, rather than stick it out and negotiate with my lone vote in a land of racists, as in your example. Or god forbid I'm stuck negotiating with them. Both may be “expressions” of my freedom, but in an example like this it's clear where the cards fall. When the Germans invaded Poland, leaving was clearly the best option. Obviously there are many facets to freedom, many necessary conditions that also admit differences of degree. Some facets are more important than others. It is a hotly contested term, but I hold that exit carries much more weight than voice. “If negotiation isn't voice, then nothing is.” Remember we're talking about the virtues and vices of democratic government here. Bald overstatement like this gets us no where. Negotiating a social contract is indeed relevant, but negotiating with my neighbors about our shared driveway is not. You do need a theory of democracy because if you're going to convince anyone it's good, then you'll have to solve its vices or justify them as unavoidable but necessary. And finally, there's no reason to be complacent about types of governance. You sound panglossian with your best of all possible worlds chant. I concede everything you say about history and yet I say we can do better. One way to do that is to lower the cost of exit. Voice may be lead to amenable compromise, but exit is king.

  9. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    Remember that episode of Reason TV where Drew Carey commuted by helicopter? There's still a way around those neighbors! More realistically, obtaining easements would be a better idea before you move in. Most of the U.S' customers/tenants were born there and never actually signed the Constition of No Authority delineating their rights (or lack thereof) and obligations.A while back Roy Childs (hat tip to Julian Sanchez) used the same monopoly distinction you're using now to debunk Nozick's case against anarchism. There is some degree of federalism in governance in the U.S, but Uncle Sam really owns all of smaller governance entities, restricts competition/entry (the standard libertarian criterion for monopoly/oligopoly) and (actually this is unusual among countries) fines you for trying to leave the entire country.

  10. Mike, When I'm talking about what voice is, I'm thinking of Albert Hirschman's classic book. Negotiating really is a paradigm case of voice.Thankfully, it is unnecessary to convince most people that democracy is good. The burden of persuasion is on anti-democrats. I'm not complacent about governance. I have some pretty wild schemes of my own. I just don't think contesting the general desirability of democracy is part of anything promising.

  11. TGGP, Sure. But the thought experiment isn't meant to establish that there is no possible way to exit, only that it is possible to get stuck.It remains that there's a very large degree of variance in local governance. There are indeed regularities enforced by the Feds, but then lots of goods have to meet certain regulatory standards (food safety, for example) which reduce choice to some extent, but we don't think that implies a total lack of meaningful competition. It's true that that the U.S. will continue to try to tax you, even if you leave. That's a good point.

  12. Some thoughts: Every contractarian I can think of (at this very minute) believes in some version of Locke's “enough and as good” proviso, or believes that it's irrelevant because, e.g., the 'contractarian' in question is also a Rousseauean. I think the intuition standing behind the Lockean proviso is that people are in some sense entitled to live self-directed lives. Perhaps it would be better to say that the proviso is one way in which liberalism's attachment to autonomy reveals itself. I take it this is just another expression of the liberal requirement of a meaningful opportunity to exit, which liberalism requires because you have a right not to have your life chances determined, and compromised, by a state or a social hierarchy that you find fundamentally objectionable. I think that this attachment commits liberals to hold someone's, or some organization's, appropriating literally everything impermissible. To borrow a famous example, that's why you can't appropriate all of Mars just by going there and building a house — other people will probably want to move there, too. (But imagine that you knew for certain that you were the only person who wanted to move to Mars?)But why is appropriating the whole Earth impermissible? It's not because it's bad to own planets — nobody has ever said that the problem with global government, tyrannical or otherwise, would be that it's a government with jurisdiction over an Earth-shaped object. It's that there's no possibility of exit; the life-chances of every man, woman, and child would be determined by a political order from which there is no escape. But a ban on total appropriation of that kind is only contingent — if people could get to Mars reasonably cheaply and, once there, have reasonable chances of living good lives, then the objection changes. (Bear in mind that “reasonably cheaply” and “reasonable chances” do a lot of work in that sentence.) You'd have to point out some other way in which the global appropriator, or global government, was illiberal. If it happened to be technologically impossible for large numbers to leave the Earth, then any global government would have to provide some substitute for the right of exist — e.g., by adopting an extraordinarily libertarian attitude towards regulation, or (and these are by no means exclusive) providing generous welfare benefits and a guaranteed minimum income to alleviate the burden of work and political or economic participation for objectors — or cede some territory to John Wayne types who want to make it on their own.Now let's transition to the would that we have, and ask what other contingent facts can condition a state's obligations toward recalcitrants? If the only three countries in the world are the United States, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, the United States can't justify deviations from the liberal model by pointing to the right of exit. Does the world we have differ from that world qualitatively or only quantitatively? Life in Western Europe is awfully good, but if the crucial value is autonomy as it's expressed in the political order to which one subjects herself, that is an imperfect answer — and there are a lot of libertarians who would say it's not an answer at all. To run right to the most extreme (but most fun!) examples, until we get seasteading or space colonies, or really radical political change, there's just nowhere that crazy anarchocapitalists or Trotskyites can go where they won't also object very strongly to the political system.The right of exit is more complicated than is commonly supposed, and our assessment of its justice is necessarily based a huge number of contingencies — in a way that, for example, is not true of the right of entry, which is much simpler.

  13. But the point is that a definition of voice which includes both negotiation and voting is a definition so broad as to tell us practically nothing. Negotiation and voting are totally different acts, they have practically nothing to do with each other, and using the desirability (and as you note, sometime necessity) of negotiation to justify the desirability of voting is a bait and switch.

  14. I don't think so. Have you ever been part of some kind of group that is deciding what to do? First there is negotiation and bargaining. If it leads to unanimity, the issue is decided. If there is no unanimity, there is additional negotiating and bargaining, and then a vote. Negotiating and voting are typically very closely related as a part of even mundane processes of collective decisionmaking.I wasn't using the desirability of negotiating to justify the desirability of voting. I was noting that it is a mistake to identify voice exclusively with voting.

  15. In a negotiation, there are genuine strategic options. Either side may be able to walk away – or cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war. The negotiation is HUGELY, HUGELY affected by the options available to the parties. Exit (and other options) shape voice to an enormous degree – far more than voice shapes exit, in my opinion. I can always pick up the phone – if I have power to bring to the bargaining table. The hard thing is getting the power – not picking up the phone.As Nick says below, characterizing “Voting in a 300,000,000 democracy” and “Negotiating with some strategic context” as the same thing is rather disingenuous. They are enormously different forms of voice.

  16. “But a system where people have votes allows them coordinate with other people to peacefully change government when it threatens their values.”Unfortunately, it also allows concentrated interest groups to coordinate among themselves to peacefully change government when it threatens their profits. And as basic public choice economics tells us, because the coordination costs are lower, concentrated groups beat dispersed ones in the game of democracy. This is not an original, controversial, or tenuous argument, yet “The Logic Of Collective Action” tells us that democracy is a system which consistently and robustly gives bad results.Voice is a mixed blessing when Monsanto, the AMA, GM, and numerous other groups are better at using it than I am.

  17. I have spent the last 10 years living in small consensus-governed communities, so I have some pretty direct experience with voice and negotiations. The facts that there have never been more than 14 consensus participants is of enormous importance. Voice acts in a qualitatively different way as scale changes. Add to that the importance of options away from the bargaining table, and what you get is that “voice” is an enormous spectrum, ranging from quite meaningful (my voice in my 12-adult community) to almost irrelevant (my voice as an American voter).

  18. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    If I want to start up a food service to compete with others, I may have to comply with federal regulations. What if I want to compete with Montgomery County? I guess I'd have to win an election in another county, but at as Arnold and others have noted, at that level its generally a one-party monopoly. I think the Seasteaders have grasped the crucial point of barriers to entry being the root cause of uncompetitive monopolistic industries.

  19. Spurious argument here, Will:”I’ve noticed that Arnold complains a lot about Montgomery Country, MD, but as far as I know hasn’t moved. What’s more, the U.S. won’t keep him from leaving, and there are many other political jurisdictions that would receive him.”There are other factors besides political preference that determine a person's choice of where to live. I first encountered this argument by a guy who was criticizing David Friedman's anarchist views because Friedman lives in California. The guy argued that this undermined Friedman's positions. But Friedman lives there because he works at UCSD, not because he prefers Californian policy.My own simple analogy: you go out to a bar and the music is way too loud and the drinks are overpriced. You're there because your romantic interest invited you there. Are you a hypocrite if you say how much better the bar would be if it played better music and charged reasonable prices?

  20. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    That's old public choice. Bryan Caplan's revised take is that is that rent-seeking lobbyists aren't to blame, We the People are. Bad policies are popular.

  21. As I've posted on ATN, I think much of the harm is not from the broad bad policies, but from the details of the policy implementations. And those are definitely written by lobbyists, not We The People.

  22. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    I guess I haven't been paying due diligence to the ATN site. Could you link to a post where you elaborate on that point?

  23. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    Searching your site, I see you making something like that point here, but from my view the details just determine which lobby receives rents, the broad policy determines inefficient rent extraction in the first place, so that causes the real harm.

  24. I do think it's hypocritical for those who advocate socialist policies in the US to scoff at moving to another country that's more in-line with their socialist wishes.Those in the US who want less socialism don't have those same choices.

  25. Yes, that's the place.I don't agree. Consider the policy of carbon taxes, as implemented in Waxman-Markey. I would say that the problem is the thousand plus pages of exceptions and corporate pork making up the majority of the bill, as opposed to the broad policy of taxing emissions – which most economists support.In general, bad policies applied evenly and consistently seem likely to me to be more efficient. A lot of the rent extraction happens in the details.

  26. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    Even in that case I'm not so sure. Greg Mankiw takes seriously (but did not reply to) Steve Landsburg's critique of his position. If your main concern is carbon emissions, it doesn't matter that permits weren't sold. Even the way Mankiw phrases it in his “wonky” post isn't about creating new inefficiencies, but passing up an opportunity to rectify one of the existing ones.

  27. That last bit isn't 100% true: when you tax carbon (or use permits), you raise the price of consumption, which means you're effectively lowering the return to labor, which is already distorted anyway. I guess this isn't a “new” inefficiency, in that we already have income taxes, but that kind of seems like splitting hairs to me; we would be creating more inefficiency, not just passing up the opportunity to reduce them.

  28. Tim Worstall – Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the WSJ, The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Register, Forbes online and a number of other places. He is also in his day job an expert in the rare earth metal, scandium. A strange thing to be but someone has to be and in this flavour of our universe Worstall is it. He apologises in advance for his Englishness and the manner in which his spelling will waver from accepted American standards at times.
    timworstall says:

    “What’s more, the U.S. won’t keep him from leaving, and there are many other political jurisdictions that would receive him.”Worth noting how difficult it actually is to exit the US polity.For everyone else, simply leave the country. Tax, for example, is paid on your country of residence.Not for a US citizen. You pay Uncle Sam wherever your residence is in the world. If the local polity charges you less than U Sam you pony up the difference to Wash DC.Actualy getting rid of your citizenship is possible but not wasy. The IRS is likely to demand all the tax you would have paid in the next decade as the price of letting you go.McMegan did a good piece on all this some time ago. But getting out of the US polity is more difficult than getting out of just about any other.Even Cuba doesn't try to tax you if you do make it to Miami Beach.

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