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?