Friday, February 4, 2011

Public Choice Through Mobility

I have serious misgivings about the use of mobility as a solution to political problems.

The concept of public choice through mobility (or voting with your feet) is generally credited to the American economist Charles Mills Tiebout (1924-1968). In his influential 1956 article, A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures, Tiebout puts forth mobility as the solution to problems that voting at the local level generally do not solve. Mobility purportedly solves the free-rider problem and the problem that many voters do not have their tax and service preferences satisfied.

Even if one assumes all of Tiebout’s assumptions hold, the outcome would degrade democracy. Tiebout sorting would homogenize society into groups of like-minded individuals, destroying the notion of the common good and the act of collective deliberation. The Tiebout model ignores the fact that society is made of people we disagree with, yet must deal with in a civilized manner. To simply sort people into like-minded groups also denies the fact that members of a society must acknowledge some level of responsibility to one another. Perhaps no one in recent political dialog has voice this sentiment more eloquently than President Barak Obama, when he said “If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child”. In a world where like-minded people have sorted themselves into a group that devalues education, that matters to the rest of society, but not to the believer in Tiebout sorting. If you believe in the Tiebout model, as long as the group is getting the service they desire, at a price they are willing to pay, all is well. This notion transforms citizens into what Tiebout calls consumer-voters, whose decisions are considered sovereign. But consumer sovereignty is a troublesome idea when it is extended from the marketplace into the public square. Consumers often make bad individual (and usually selfish) decisions, while democracy (hopefully) produces better decisions and admits some level of selflessness and civic virtue.

For an excellent examination of political philosophy and justice, see Justice with Michael Sandel.


  1. Hi Chad,
    As a candidate for State Senate in 2010 I saw fist hand that such communities do exist. How they were created is not completely clear, but citizens do definitely seem to cluster around like-minded people. I imagine that there are many reasons for this, but I believe tolerance for taxes and value of services could very well be one of the reasons. I'm not saying this is a good thing, just that it definitely exists.

  2. Chad, the YouTube video is great. Note that I brought it up to the post so it can be directly clicked.