The debate over term limits continues
by Linn and Ari Armstrong
With the recent election, Mesa County will continue to term limit its sheriff. But should term limits for sheriffs be removed in the future? Should term limits for state legislature be repealed, or term limits for Congress be instituted?
Your authors usually agree on political principles, but the matter of term limits pertains more to optional political organization and strategy. We don't dispute the wisdom of George Washington's self-imposed limit, nor of term limits for president. We want to risk neither monarchy nor dictatorship. Yet for lower offices, the rationale for term limits is less obvious. Linn will present his case for term limits, while Ari will offer some notes of skepticism.
Linn: On election day I was having coffee with the guys. Those supporting the removal of term limits for sheriff argued that, when a competent person fills an office, he or she should be allowed to ask the voters for a continued opportunity to serve. On the other hand, voters should be able to eject those doing a poor job.
A long-time observer of Denver's capitol gave me another reason to oppose term limits at the legislative level: "Term limits have reduced the House and Senate to those who just do not have the political experience. Many of those serving in the House and Senate spend their time running for the next political office. Tillie Bishop, even if you do not agree with his politics, knew how the system worked in Denver. He was able to take care of those back home." Yet I am not swayed by these arguments.
Ari: I'll add two points here. First, when legislators are less experienced, that gives lobbyists more power, because the lobbyists know how the system works. Lobbyists outnumber legislators, and lobbyists aren't term limited. Second, good candidates can be hard to find for lower-level offices.
Linn: Term limits are a good idea because incumbent candidates are very difficult to unseat. The office gives the candidate an unfair advantage over competitors. Incumbents have an easier time getting in front of the news media, from every baby they kiss to every ribbon they cut.
Ari: Incumbents are known to voters, who don't want somebody new to make messes or start some sort of scandal. The fact that a candidate has already survived in office usually indicates that the candidate is not crazy and has experience.
Linn: When "politician" becomes a professional class, politicians start to see themselves -- and the public tends to see them -- as elites. This is an affront to republicanism. When career politicians run things, voters tend to relinquish more power to the politicians and think of government as something by and for the politicians. Moreover, the longer politicians stay in office, the more they are tempted by power, prestige, and special-interest pandering.
Ari: I take seriously the argument about corruptibility. However, there's nothing inevitable about corruption. It's possible for a long-time politician to keep his or her moral bearings, as it is possible for a new politician to immediately sell out to special interests and abuse the power of the office. One problem with term limits is that they can serve to replace the first sort of politician with the second.
Linn: Term limits protect us from an apathetic public. In modern politics, in which most people ignore politics and know little about the issues, political activists gain undue power.
Activists with lots of time on their hands lick stamps and envelopes, make telephone calls, drop political mail, and so on. These volunteers have much greater access to the candidates, and they influence many other voters. The guys at coffee talked about canceling out each others' votes, but a vote is not equal to a volunteer's activism.
A small number of activists also drive the local caucuses and the county conventions. This process has broken down because of a lack of participation. By the time of the general election, you get to pick only from a pre-selected group of candidates.
Term limits protect us from the general lack of interest in the political process. Take the last election in Mesa County. All people had to do was mail in their ballot, and they had weeks to do this. Yet only forty percent voted. This alone is reason to have term limits.
Ari: Why should people who take no interest in politics be protected from those who do? If the problem is that a small number of activists control the political process, term limits won't change that. Arguably, incumbency is what actually protects the masses from the activists, because, once a candidate is in office, he or she can safely ignore the activists. More political turnover means that the activists have more politicians in their pockets. Term limits address the symptoms of the problem without curing it.
Rather than spend their efforts fighting for term limits, people should directly promote the political principles of individual rights and economic liberty.