[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 2, 2006 at 10:00pm] Trackbacks
Voting With Your Feet and the Political Impact of Katrina:

As this article explains, the upcoming New Orleans mayoral election involves extensive efforts by candidates to woo the numerous residents of the city who have not returned since Hurrican Katrina. By some estimates (see above link), about half the population, including a disproportionate percentage of the city's poor African-American population, has not come back since the hurricane.

Lost in the debate over the election is the possibility that things might be better for both the evacuees themselves and our political system if many of them choose NOT to come back. Others have extensively detailed the extent to which the damage done by Katrina was exacerbated by the incompetence of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, and other state and local officials (see, e.g., here and here).

As I have argued in my academic work (see, e.g., here and here, pp. 63-68), one of the best ways citizens have for holding state and local governments accountable is by "voting with their feet" and moving to jurisdictions with superior policies. Often, this is actually more effective than traditional ballot box voting, because the latter is more prone to collective action and "rational ignorance" issues. Through foot voting, states with incompetent or corrupt governments (and Lousiana has a long history of both) lose some of the taxpayers and businesses they need to fund programs that help get them reelected. In the case of Nagin and Blanco, they might end up losing many of the poor black voters on whom Louisiana Democrats depend for electoral support. If Nagin and Blanco are punished in this way, future state and local officials in Louisiana and elsewhere will have an incentive to do a better job in planning for the next natural disaster.

This point also implies that federal assistance to disaster relief should be channeled as much as possible to the evacuees and other victims themselves, as economist Steven Landsburg recommends, rather than to state and local governments. That way, state and local officials can only benefit from the relief funds if they adopt policies attractive enough to persuade evacuees to return and other residents to stay. They won't be rewarded for their earlier incompetence with grants unrelated to future performance as judged by the flood victims themselves. Instead, they will have to earn the money by persuading residents to spend it in their jurisdictions rather than elsewhere.

It is true, of course, that incompetence by the Bush Administration and FEMA also contributed to the disaster, and this post should not be interpreted to suggest otherwise. Federal government failure, unfortunately, is not easily punishable by foot voting. This, to my mind, is an important consideration in favor of decentralizing government power. In the meantime, however, we can at least hope that foot voting will help to punish the failures of Nagin and Blanco, and deter their would-be future imitators in other states.

UPDATE: Two standard criticisms of "voting with your feet" are 1) that it doesn't work because moving is costly and 2) that it doesn't work for the poor. The latter is empirically false: the poor are actually more likely to make interstate moves than other Americans, as data cited in my two articles cited above shows. Historically, even VERY poor and severely oppressed people, such as the many African-Americans in the Jim Crow-era South who moved to northern states (also discussed in my work) have improved their position by leaving for relatively better jurisdictions. The cost point is true in a sense (moving IS costly), but people will still vote with their feet if the benefits of moving out of a poorly governed jurisdiction outweigh those costs (as, empirically, they often do). In the case of New Orleans, the cost issue may not even apply for many of the evacuees because they are already out of the city and many have little or no property left in New Orleans to return to.