A Glitch in “Voting With Our Feet”

In the United States, we hold on to terrific myths about the power of the individual. We celebrate (mostly) entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who bring us new technologies and cool cars and we have magazines focused entirely on major business leaders whose insight and innovation power our most successful companies. We believe that individuals hold the power to change the world, and we believe that giving people freedom will lead to rational decisions on the part of individuals to find the best outcome for our country.

 

An idea that pops out of this myth is the idea of voting with our feet. The term refers to people making a decision to go someplace else, to chose something else and to literally move ourselves with our feet to a different option. We might vote with our feet when we move from one city to another, or when we leave one store to shop at another, or quite literally in some state caucuses when we walk from one side of a room to another to support a different political candidate. We believe that our individual choices and where we chose to shop and how we chose to vote will really make a difference in the world.

 

This is only partially true, and only sometimes has the positive outcomes we hope for. In many instances however, our individual choices are just not enough to overcome structural factors which entrench the status quo. Sometimes we vote with our feet, but really move from one option provided by a company to another, without really making a difference in the bottom line of the company we are voting against with our feet (think of moving from Facebook to Instagram, which is still owned by Facebook). Voting with our feet can also have very negative consequences, such as entrenching segregation without having anyone to blame.

 

In The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen writes about the ways in which our society is becoming more segregated through the use of voting with our feet. Across the country we see people move into “nicer” neighborhoods which creates a level of economic, racial, and political segregation that should raise moral concerns. About the issue Cowen writes, “The self-selection process is running its course, and how people are voting with their feet often differs from which is coming out of their mouths.”

 

Many people who believe that schools and communities should be more diverse are moving to areas with less diversity. They are not consciously choosing to live in more segregated areas, but they are voting with their feet to leave areas of worse economic condition but greater diversity in favor of more economically sound and culturally homogeneous regions. Sometimes the goal is to move into a more wealthy neighborhood, sometimes the goal is to move to reduce a work commute, and sometimes the goal is to move to be closer to a better school. Often the results are neighborhoods with more similar people in terms of race, income/wealth, and cultural values and backgrounds, ultimately, more segregation.

 

This process is playing out because we empower the individual in our society and don’t want to do anything to limit the power of the individual’s choice. Segregation is a result of the power to vote with our feet, but it is also the dismantlement of the myth of the individual. The rational individual is not making individual choices that make the world a better place. Instead, the individual is working on feelings that lead to a desire for greater similarity between themselves and their neighbors, ultimately creating a worsening system of segregation. We should learn from this example that our individual choices are both not sufficient to bring about the best outcomes for our society and planet, and that simultaneously our individual choices can have a serious negative outcomes when left unchecked. We must think first about the systems that structure our decisions, and then think about how we can make the most of our choices for positive, rather than negative outcomes.

Why Don't We Care About People Living Far Away?

In human societies, it is quite OK to be biased toward local rather than foreign or distant concerns. We care a lot about our own family, care a little less about our neighborhood, care less about the people on the other side of town, care less about people across our state, less about people in other states, and much much less about people in other countries or on other continents. Our minds really only seem to have the capacity to fully care about those things in our immediate vicinity, pushing the worries and troubles of others out of our thoughts. When we consider charity, we like to put ourselves first, thinking of things we can do in our community before we consider things we can do outside of our community (not always but in general). The highest impact use of our resources (such as charitable donations) can often come from people who live far away, where our money can have greater purchasing power and make a greater marginal benefit for the recipient.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this phenomenon in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They specifically consider how this plays out for our leadership, “We want leaders who look out for their immediate communities, rather than people who need help in far-off places. In a sense, we want them to be parochial. In some situations, it borders on antisocial to be overly concerned with the welfare of distant strangers.”

 

In a sense, it is easy to understand why we are concerned with the people in our community. If we make a big effort to help the homeless in our own city, then we might not have to see any homeless or deal with any panhandlers. But in another sense, it can be harmful to only focus on the people in our own communities. If we can make relatively small investments to help reduce famine in a distant country, then it may prevent a major crisis that leads to refugee flows back into our own country.
My concern is that as we move forward on this planet, we will need to find ways to think of ourselves beyond our local communities. We will face challenges that require human responses on a global scale, and if we are limited by tribal thinking, then we will not be able to successfully cope with these problems of enormous magnitude. Somehow we have to recognize that our brains are biased toward local present needs, threats, and dangers, and think beyond ourselves, our communities, and our current moment.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.

 

Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”

 

The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.

 

If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

Overly Reliant on Outside Influences

One of the draws that I have toward stoicism is the idea that both good things and bad things will happen around me, but that I can always decide whether something is good or bad and how I will move forward from the good things and bad things that happen around me. My reactions are something I can control even if I can’t control the weather, the person who cut me off on the freeway, or the economic downturn that sinks my business. In stoicism, I have found a set of tools for objectively viewing the world and developing an inner ability of focus and calmness.

One of the authors who taught me a lot about stoicism is Colin Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be is a somewhat stoic look at the forces in our lives that shape the people we are becoming and how we can respond to those forces to become people who are well equipped to do the important things to help society become a better place. In one chapter of his book, Wright highlights an idea that many companies, industries, and professionals in American society now operate on a business model based on making us feel small. The business model positions the company, coach, or set of coaches as the only thing that can take us from where we are to where we want to go. Wright references certain types of gyms, certain health restaurants, and in some cases our coaches, mentors, or guides from the self-help world. In his book he writes, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with self-improvement. … But I am saying that when we become overly reliant on outside influences, encouragement, and incentives in how we feel about ourselves, we open ourselves up to abuse and mistreatment. We open ourselves up to being manipulated.”

Business models that rely on customers becoming reliant on them put us in a position where we cannot walk away. Their goal may seem like it is to provide great kick-boxing workouts or to help motivate people to get in shape and make good decisions, but what is really happening is the development of a cycle of dependency and the development of personal identities that don’t operate without the business at the center providing the affirmation that one is living properly, doing the right things to be healthy, and taking the right steps for a validated life. Stoic philosophy turns this business model on its head by suggesting that we already have all the means within the faculties of our minds to be fulfilled. We don’t need to tie our self-value and self-worth to the praise of another person. It is not up to money, social status, or the number of mornings at the gym which determine whether we are living the right life. We have value by virtue of being a human being and we can use tools around us to improve our health, try to reach out goals, or build a community of like-minded individuals, but we don’t have to tie our entire identity and value as a human to these industries in order to define ourselves and become valuable and meaningful.