Voting with Your Feet in a New Age of Exit

In one photo, a young boy is running across a green mountain meadow at sunset. In another, a vista of red rocks frames a path through a manicured desert landscape. The air is so clear it looks like an ad for TV resolution technology.

I’m referring to Austen Allred’s pictures of Utah on Twitter, and I’ll admit they’ve captured my imagination. Allred is the founder and CEO of Lambda School, a fast-growing startup that teaches programming in return for a fraction of participants’ salaries. Until recently Allred and his family had leased a home in San Francisco, but they relocated to Utah to ride out the pandemic.

One of the many effects of the pandemic has been a flurry of people relocating from big cities to smaller cities and rural areas. Who knows if these moves are temporary or permanent. But it is worth asking: Do they signify a deeper shift towards “exit” in American politics? I suspect they do.

The concept of “exit” was popularized by Albert Hirshman in his 1970 treatise Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.  The idea is that people have two basic choices when they perceive that an organization or entity is decreasing in quality or benefits. They can voice their concerns and try to reform it from within, or they can exit the system. “Exit” is an academic way of saying voting with your feet. It is a form of political action that involves opting out and moving on to greener pastures.

“Exit” at the very least is taking place at the city and state level. The exodus from San Francisco has led to a 96 percent year-over-year increase in real estate inventory, according to a recent Zillow report. And it’s not just the pandemic. Spiraling housing costs, taxes, crime, public feces, and now fires are driving people out, too. As one Facebook friend put it: “Why am I living in California again? 13.3% state income taxes (going to 17%), new wealth taxes coming. No in-person schools, no gyms, no bars, no Lyft & soon Uber will be gone as well.”

The blogger James Altucher recently declared NYC is dead forever. “Every day I see more and more posts, ‘I’ve been in NYC forever, but I guess this time I have to say goodbye,’” he writes. Altucher wrote the post from his new home in South Florida, where he relocated in June. The post generated controversy among New Yorkers. “We’re going to keep going with NYC if that’s alright with you,” Jerry Seinfeld wrote in a snarky rebuttal. “And it sure as hell will be back.” You can see in this exchange a New Yorker’s version of voice-versus-exit. Altucher chose exit. Seinfeld advocates voice and loyalty.

Kids are a major factor in these decisions, of course. How do you raise a family in cities facing riots, rising crime, closed schools, and required mask-wearing even for toddlers? Altucher mentioned this as a major factor for him.

I made a similar calculation last June, relocating to Florida on an indeterminate basis. The school my son will attend has more than 100 new students from New York City, an administrator told me.

Even friends who’ve stayed in cities or who don’t have children are abuzz about relocating. One friend binge-watches the show “Homestead Rescue” and is scouting land in West Virginia. Another is contemplating a move to Europe. 

When jobs can be done remotely and city life is shut down, why not try something new? When rioters trash your city and your kid’s school goes virtual, why not leave if you can?

Although the pandemic is the surface-level cause of today’s relocation frenzy, I suspect pessimism about the country may be a deeper force lurking beneath the surface — and that a national psychology of “exit” may be brewing. Some of these moves feel like a trial run for a more complete form of exit, or at the very least a stepping back from our polarized national politics. Let’s call it “soft exit.”

 At what point does soft exit become a hard exit? 

 The other week I had to take a moment after watching the video of a brutal beating in my hometown of Portland. It was the kick to the head of a defenseless young man, who then lay unconscious with his head bleeding as the crowd continued to harangue him. It reminded me of a similar incident in Portland in May, when another young man was kicked in the head by far-left rioters. 

These are isolated incidents, you might say. But for many people these images are a visceral reminder of deeper sicknesses at the national level—a corrupted elite that no longer cares about its citizens; an unsustainable fiscal and monetary outlook for younger generations; an ideological subversion of historic American values and beliefs; and a media and legal system that selectively prosecutes the law, allowing anarchy for some groups while tyrannically cracking down on others.

At what point are law-abiding, middle-class Americans going to say: Screw it, get me out of this country? And can you blame them for thinking this any more than you can blame Californians for getting fed up with their state?

Voting with one’s feet should not be seen as necessarily bad or unpatriotic. The recent relocation trend may revitalize new parts of the country. It may lead to new forms of associations—master-planned communities, small towns that people revive, homeschooling pods, and all the new adventures that a new environment presents.

 Relocating is a form of political action. It is counter-demoralizing rather than demoralizing. You could view it as rekindling the spirit of settlers and pioneers, or the waves of migration that built this country. Think of the Great Migration North of African-Americans, the Dust Bowl Okies who migrated to California, or those who had “Gone to Texas” after the Panic of 1819. Now, as then, there are cultural and economic factors driving these decisions: Why give tax money to places that hate you? Why not move where your kids can attend school or where there’s greater economic opportunity?

And I don’t judge those considering a harder exit out of the country. To some, leaving the country may feel like an act of disloyalty, but there are plenty of historical examples of patriots fighting for their countries in exile. Even more mundane motivations, like protecting one’s family or seeking new opportunity, are hard to judge given our own immigrant heritage. 

I love America and want to see it flourish. And I know an amazing future is possible. But I suspect some difficult questions will bubble up if we stay on the current trajectory. For example, what does patriotism mean when people perceive the country as culturally and ideologically subverted and distant from its Constitutional roots? Where do we direct our loyalties when America the state comes in conflict with the American way of life, a trend implicit in the Claremont Institute’s thinking? What can we say to people who no longer recognize America as the country they know and love in the same way Californians say they no longer recognize their state? 

These questions are uncomfortable to raise, but there is some upside in the situation for the libertarian-minded. Maybe a more explicit discussion of exit will snap governments back into shape as they fear losing tax dollars. Maybe it will create competition and drive innovation that makes it easier to vote with one’s feet, either within the country or outside of it. 

Perhaps the “age of exit” should instead be seen as an “age of association,” a new era of homeschooling, remote work, charter cities, space exploration, and the formation of new, self-determined communities. At what point will we innovate around the concept of the nation-state itself?

 Pandemic-inspired reshuffling is a soft manifestation of something deeper, I suspect. And there’s something quintessentially American about it and about “exit.” It’s our continued search for Promised Land, like the pushcart pioneers who settled Utah. Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along.

About Jeff Giesea

Jeff is an entrepreneur based in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Austen Allred/@Austen

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