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Freedom Is Exit, Not Voice

August 11, 2009

Will Willkinson calls charter cities illiberal, by which he means “undemocratic”, saying: “Unlike many of my libertarian friends, I do not think democracy is incidental to liberty”.

A very brief counter-argument Will Chamberlain & I discussed is to simply point out that democracy is a mechanism, while liberty is an outcome.  Their relationship is an empirical question, and the evidence so far seems to suggest that democracy is a mechanism which substantially restricts liberty.

I see no need to expand on this angle, because Arnold Kling has responded brilliantly from a different one:

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.

Exit and voice are not equal, because exit includes some voice – leaving is a statement, and a powerful one.  But voice does not include exit – the nature of a monopoly is that you must use its services.

Another way of looking at it is that freedom and choice are, while not identical, closely related.  The right to exit, plus decent alternatives, results in actual choice between actual options.  Voice merely constitutes choice in stated preference.  This allows for affiliation and complaining, but not choice in actual outcomes.  It seems rather obvious to me which is more like “freedom”.

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11 Comments
  1. August 11, 2009 9:12 am

    Their relationship is an empirical question, and the evidence so far seems to suggest that democracy is a mechanism which substantially restricts liberty.

    Compared to what, though?

  2. Peter Twieg permalink
    August 11, 2009 4:41 pm

    Exit is a form of voice if it’s actually executed. But if the costs of doing so are too high, then lower-cost voice options might be preferable. More people would be prepared to exercise the “exit” option in North Korea than, say, America… but certainly not because they believe that American represents the best of all possible worlds.

    A major aim of the seasteading project, I believe, is to lower the costs of exit. Exit should be categorically better than voice as an ideal, but the fact that it’s often not is precisely the problem that we’re struggling against.

  3. August 11, 2009 9:54 pm

    Exit can certainly be powerfully influential. But:

    1. I’m not sure I agree that voice is just instrumentally valuable. Being an active participant in the formulation of the rules that affect my life seems to me to be intrinsically worthwhile. Being excluded from the opportunity to participate in decision-making feels to me—perhaps not to others—as if it were itself a denial of freedom, not simply the absence of a more-or-less-useful means to achieving freedom.

    2. The assumption that exit is preferable to voice also seems to me to work for people who aren’t rooted in particular communities. For those of us with deep roots, exit would be very costly indeed. I don’t want to have to choose between being free and being part of a community I care about.

    • August 11, 2009 10:48 pm

      1. I certainly agree that voice feels good, it feels like we are counted and participating. But I think that is a form of Folk Activism – it feels good because in a tribe, voice had power, voice was freedom. In a modern democracy, your voice still feels like influence, but it no longer is. If you go with the feeling, rather than the reality, change will never happen.

      2. Yes, exit from a community is costly. But that does not change the point that without at least the threat of exit, you are going to get screwed. Those roots means you get exploited by a monopoly (in the current incentive system, at least). Which brings up Peter’s point above – we can make things better by making exit cheaper (seasteading, ancap, better virtual reality, etc.)

      In other words, observing that exit is costly doesn’t change the fact that it is true power (unlike voice). What it does is show us what we need to do to fix things – make exit cheaper.

  4. August 13, 2009 1:21 am

    “Their relationship is an empirical question, and the evidence so far seems to suggest that democracy is a mechanism which substantially restricts liberty.”

    I agree that democracy is a mechanism. Indeed, it is a family of mechanisms, since different democratic systems produce significantly different outcomes. Some of them are terrible.

    But the empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that that freest societies generally rely heavily on some kind of democratic mechanism. It works. The regularity is so striking I am led to conclude that the relationship between high levels of freedom and democracy is not accidental. Democracy is a mechanism for peacefully changing directions in governance when it strays too far from the publics’ values. When a people value freedom, democracy helps them preserve it without recourse to violent social upheaval

    Democracy is obviously not sufficient for freedom, and I don’t think it is necessary either (putting me outside the consensus view of political theorists), but “If relatively free, then democratic” holds up pretty well as a generalization. I’m not aware of many instances of non-democratic societies that are also relatively free.

    We’ve covered this ground before, but, again, I thought the idea of jurisdictional competition driven by dynamic geography was to better find out what works. So far, in the natural experiments that have been run, democracy works. So I’m not sure why you insist on predicting that successful seasteads will not be democracies of some form. I predict that if there are successful seasteads, they will be democracies of some form on the basis of democracy’s actual winning record. The basis of your prediction, if you’re making one, is not so clear to me.

    I also predict that undermotivated attacks on democracy will hurt the prospects of your project. Why not act like you believe your “let a thousand nations bloom” experimentalist rhetoric and wait to see how your experiment turns out? Is it that you think demand for something like seastead living depends on demand for freedom-oriented alternatives to democracy, and that your project therefore won’t be viable if people accept that freedom and democracy in fact tend to go together? I’m really curious. I simply don’t understand the animosity toward democracy, unless it’s just a symptom of anarchist animosity toward the idea of legitimate government coercion.

    • September 1, 2009 12:09 am

      Very cheeky Will: “But the empirical evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that that freest societies generally rely heavily on some kind of democratic mechanism”

      That’s because freedom leads to wealth, and wealth leads to democracy (which is a “luxury good” in economic jargon). But once a country is a democracy, they consistently vote themselves into bigger government. All just as Schumpeter predicted nearly 100 years ago.

      I think the deification of democracy is perhaps the greatest threat to liberty in the western world. There is a growing sense that “if democracy says it, it must be true”, so that now a vote on how you live is more important that your choice on how you live. But democracy does not determine truth or morality. There is no inherent morality in two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

      Democracy has it’s virtues. It puts downward pressure on corruption and it allows leadership transition without bloodshed. But it terms of policy, it clearly has lead to bigger government. And to people familiar with public choice theory, this isn’t a surprise.

      The only stop I can see that will prevent this slide is greater jurisdictional competition. As countries (including yours and mine) continue to centralise power, the only way to add jurisdictional competition is to add extra jurisdictions outside western countries. Hence the virtue of seasteading.

  5. August 16, 2009 1:57 am

    Hi all,

    I’ve been a consistent reader of this blog for many weeks now and of the many great new concepts I’ve been introduced to here, Hirschman’s exit & voice is surely the most interesting.

    Some 2 years ago I was musing on related topics and I came up with some surprisingly related thoughts. Perhaps my little essay, Democracy Vs. Capitalism, will be useful to others: http://elzr.com/posts/democracy-vs-capitalism-ii It was very useful to me in discovering things I never new before writing it.

    In the essay, I set out to find what are the essential differences between votes and money, democracy and capitalism’s respective units. I saw 4 main differences:

    Votes are binary
    Votes aren’t universally castable.
    Votes are apportioned equally.
    Votes are “compulsory.”

    And it turned out that the last one was the crucial one. You can take the first 3 and you’d still be dealing with votes and democracy, but take out compulsion (that is, allow for exit) and you’re now dealing with money and capitalism.

    Keep up the fascinating insights & the seasteading hope!

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