Each presidential election year—perhaps this year more than most—we hear from friends, family, and celebrities the familiar refrain of, “If he/she wins, I’m moving to Canada!” Actress Lena Dunham is just the most recent example of this, claiming that if Republican Donald Trump is elected she “really will” move to Canada.
The prevalence of this mentality has even inspired a marketing campaign for an island in Canada, explicitly welcoming those Americans who may want to flee a Trump presidency.
Now, perhaps this year will be different, but history shows us that most of these plans fail to materialize. That, of course, does not stop people from expressing their plans to move, should politics tip in a direction opposite their own.
How People in a Free Society Express Their Frustration
Central to a democracy like ours is the idea that individuals are able to express their opinion with regards to what government should do through voting.
Yet at the heart of this “move to Canada” phenomenon is the idea that in a free society, individuals have an alternative at their disposal: something Albert Hirschman referred to as “exit,” whereby citizens disappointed in their government can act on that frustration by choosing to leave.
The Idea of “Voting with Your Feet” Originated When…
This concept—oftentimes referred to as “voting with your feet”—is one of the most frequently studied and applied ideas in public economics. In the economics literature, it dates back at least to a famous article by Charles Tiebout in the mid-1950s, where he argued that free movement of individuals could help local governments efficiently provide so-called public goods.
The idea is that at the local level, governments have to compete for residents against a large number of alternative local governments; this provides an incentive for policymakers to get their mix of taxing and spending “right” so as not to drive away potential resident-taxpayers.
Case Study: Family Men vs. Bachelors
This freedom of movement between governments also provides individuals the ability to choose the jurisdiction with the mix of taxing and spending that most closely approximates their own preferences. For example, if I am a family man with multiple children, I may select a community with relatively high property taxes used to finance good public schools.
On the other hand, if I am a bachelor with no intention of ever settling down, I may select a locality with no property taxes (likely meaning poor schools) and a minimal regulatory environment fostering a vibrant nightlife. Communities of people with like-preferences thus develop, and governments are better able to provide the ideal mix of taxes and services.
The power of this logic is that after I select my community, if policymakers begin to deviate from what I view as “good” government, I have the option to leave and move to an alternative jurisdiction. So when Lena Dunham says, “I’m moving to Canada,” what she’s really saying is that she views Canada as a government/society which better matches her ideal preferences than does the United States (at least with Donald Trump as President).
Why No One Is Actually Going to Move to Canada
So why then do we not see a mass exodus of half the country every four years when “the other guy” wins? There are at least two explanations for this.
First, no one’s going to be impacted that hard by our new president (we hope). Despite the rhetoric leading up to any election, the lives of Americans do not vary much at the margin with respect to who occupies the White House.
This is a great feature, not a bug, of our democracy. The Founders designed a government constrained by checks and balances so that if the “wrong” candidate gets elected, there are strict limitations on what he/she could accomplish unilaterally.
While it is very safe to say that the relative power of the Executive Branch has grown since our founding, it remains the case that with regards to the day-to-day lives of most Americans, the actual difference between a President Donald Trump vs. a President Hillary Clinton vs. a President Joffrey Baratheon should be small, by design.
Second, moving is hard. There is a reason the Tiebout logic is applied exclusively to local governments: for “voting with your feet” to be a viable option, the actual costs of moving need to be low. For example, if tomorrow my neighborhood homeowners’ association decides to pass a rule which allows livestock to graze the neighborhood, I will likely be on the market for a new house. But this is relatively easy—I live in a sizable city with many homes from which to choose.
Taking it a step further, if my city government raised taxes considerably, I could still consider moving; but even at this relatively low level of government, we see that the costs of actual exit are far from zero. When moving out of a city, I am now looking at a commute to work or needing to find a job in a new town. By the time we consider the costs associated with leaving a state (let alone a country!), we are approaching prohibitively high numbers for most people.
An Essential Option
Taken together, it is no wonder the vast majority of Americans will not actually exit the country in response to something like a presidential election: the costs are exorbitantly high and the benefits—avoiding the insignificant change in your day-to-day life associated with the “bad” candidate winning—are diminishingly small.
That said, having the “exit” option available remains essential. History is rife with examples of tyrants rising to power and governments truly exploiting their citizens. If that were to happen here, we may very well see people embrace the high cost of moving—if your life and liberty is at stake, it’s a bargain.
So no, for now, your friends (or favorite celebrity) are likely not moving to Canada, but it essential that they have that option.