Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


Ilya Somina1

a1 Law, George Mason University


The strengths and weaknesses of federalism have been debated for centuries. But one major possible advantage of building decentralization and limited government into a constitution has been largely ignored in the debate so far: its potential for reducing the costs of widespread political ignorance. The argument of this paper is simple, but has potentially important implications: Constitutional federalism enables citizens to “vote with their feet,” and foot voters have much stronger incentives to make well-informed decisions than more conventional ballot box voters. The informational advantage of foot voting over ballot box voting suggests that decentralized federalism can increase citizen welfare and democratic accountability relative to policymaking in a centralized unitary state.

Ballot box voters have strong incentives to be “rationally ignorant” about the candidates and policies they vote on because the chance that any one vote will have a decisive impact on an electoral outcome is vanishingly small. For the same reason, they also have little or no incentive to make good use of the information they do possess. By contrast, “foot voters” choosing a jurisdiction in which to reside have much stronger incentives to acquire information and use it rationally; the decisions they make are individually decisive.

Ilya Somin is Associate Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. His work has appeared in numerous scholarly journals, including the Yale Law Journal, Stanford Law Review, Northwestern University Law Review, Georgetown Law Journal, and Critical Review. He has served as a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; the University of Hamburg, Germany; and Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and as an Olin Fellow at Northwestern University School of Law.


For helpful suggestions and comments, I would like to thank Bryan Caplan, Bruce Kobayashi, Donald Wittman, and participants in conference panels sponsored by the University of California at Santa Cruz, the IVR international conference on law and philosophy, the Liberty Fund, and the Korea Institutional Economics Association. I would also like to thank Susan Courtwright-Rodriguez and Kari DiPalma for valuable research assistance.