On the Move

I am 27 years old, and I have lived in eight states, only counting places where I’ve stayed for more than three months. If you count places I’ve stayed for at least one month, I’ve lived in ten states and two countries. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2008, I’ve lived in more states than 98% of people in the United States.

Not counting moves that were intentionally limited in time – internships and the like – I’ve moved 12 times in my life so far. The average American moves 11.4 times in their lifetime.

Now, I was thinking about this the other day as part of a larger package of “life assessment” style thoughts, and I found myself wondering whether moving this often makes a person more liberal. At a glance, that jives with our intuition, right? Social conservatism, at its core, honors tradition and sees inherent value in processes that are time-tested. Social liberalism, at its limit, doesn’t include the age of a practice in its consideration of that practice’s value. Why would it matter if a practice is “traditional” if it is unjust?

It seems likely that a person who moves around a lot during their life is exposed to more traditions and ways of being than a person who stays in their hometown. It’s possible that they could react by ossifying, bunkering into their traditions. But I guess I think it’s more likely that they would react by becoming a little more agnostic about the “right” way to do things.

This intuition seems to hold up to a superficial analysis – the cross-tabulation below shows that liberals are over-represented in the group of people who’ve lived in multiple places, and conservatives are over-represented in the group of people who’ve lived in the same place for their entire life. (This data is from the 2008 Pew Research Center survey.)

Crosstabs of moving and ideology

However, this is where it gets a bit complicated. Because there are plenty of characteristics that are predictive of moving around that are also predictive of being liberal. Poorer families are more likely to move in search of economic opportunities – this was my family’s experience. Married people are less likely to switch states, and they’re more conservative than single people. Higher education levels are correlated with moving more often and being less conservative.

On top of all of these confounders, we’re also faced with a reverse causality issue. If you value tradition less, you’re probably more willing to move around than a person who gets a lot of utility from stability.

It’s pretty thorny. My gut tells me that there’s probably some causal impact here – maybe not a large one, and certainly contingent on whether you move somewhere with a similar culture to your hometown’s, but some kind of liberalizing effect. We’ve just got to find a natural experiment. I think I’m going to check the data for Moving to Opportunity – it should be that folks awarded housing vouchers for low-poverty neighborhoods are moving to different enough cultures that we might see some liberalization.

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