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In Praise of Jurisdictional Competition

Here’s a letter to an unhappy reader of the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. K__:

You’re “disappointed with” my “ridiculous letter” in today’s Wall Street Journal – your reason being that my letter allegedly reveals that I am “uninterested in the public good.”

Specifically, you accuse me of failing to see that people who migrate from states with draconian Covid restrictions to states with lighter restrictions “selfishly seek license to live like they wish and avoid helping pay the cost of fighting Covid…. Instead of being all in this together these selfish people are only looking out for themselves.”

With respect, you’re mistaken. If Smith is prompted by California’s harsh Covid regime to migrate to Florida, he personally experiences in Florida, in addition to the benefits of more freedom, the costs of whatever might be the greater risks of exposure to Covid. Furthermore, by moving, he unjustly imposes costs neither on Californians nor on Floridians.

That his moving out of California imposes no unjust costs on Californians is obvious. That his moving to Florida imposes no unjust costs on Floridians is inferred from two facts: First, Floridians who are uneasy with their state’s light-touch Covid policy are themselves free to move to more-restrictive states such as California; second, an especially large number of Floridians presumably agree that the costs of draconian Covid measures are greater than any likely benefits. These Floridians want the more active – the ‘normal’ – commercial and social engagements that are denied to denizens of more-restrictive states.

Because there are worthy goals in life other than ever-greater avoidance of Covid – and because there’s no objective, single answer to the question ‘Are the benefits of some quantum of Covid avoidance greater or less than the costs of such avoidance?’ – when different jurisdictions experiment with different degrees of restrictions, individuals with different preferences are better able to sort themselves into jurisdictions that more closely match their preferences. The sorting and the results aren’t perfect, but they’re far better than what would arise under a regime that’s nationally imposed, single-sized, and nearly impossible to escape.

If nothing else – and this point is really what my letter is about – people’s ability to migrate across state lines supplies important information to government officials about the relative popularity of their policies, as well as puts at least some constraints on these officials’ power to abuse the masses.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030