On Term Limits

16 November 2021

In ordinary discussion of limitation on the time that a political office may be held, two points are not made directly as often as they should be.

Opponents of term limits should not contrast the outcomes expected to obtain under term limits with those imagined to result under an idealized representative government. Ostensibly representative government is regularly not very representative; many participants in the political process — including individual voters — work actively to subvert the extent to which it is representative; and it can never be close to being perfectly representative. Illustrating the first of these points, note how often most voters feel compelled to select a least detestable candidate amongst a field of knaves and of fools, and note that major programmes opposed by a majority of voters are adopted by legislatures. Illustrating the second point, note people who vote in open primaries of the party they disfavor, hoping to effect selection of a weaker candidate for that party. To understand the third point, consider what would be required to select representatives whose preferences operationally mirrored those of the more general public.

Term limits change the incentive system for political officials and for would-be political officials. They can no longer make life-time careers in holding one office. If meaningful term-limits became the norm across all elected offices, it would no longer be practical for the typical elected official to make a life-time career of holding a series of elected offices. Those who held office would be less beholden to political machines and cartels, they would have less to sell, they would have to be proficient at more than office-seeking. More of them would be more representative than now, albeït still quite imperfectly so.

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