Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor
Term Limits: Political Boon or Monstrosity? the Theory That Strictures Will Ensure Honesty Is Flawed
THE goofiest news to come out of campaign '92 is this: 14 states voted to limit terms for their members of Congress, while proceeding to return to Congress 95 percent of their incumbent legislators. Some six dozen of these reelected worthies have already served past the limit which their supporters enthusiastically adopted. The message is: Stop me before I vote again!
Never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come, said Victor Hugo. I don't. The idea of term limits has arrived and is snowballing - gathering power and crushing reason and common sense. The unstoppable populism behind this idea will doubtless ensure that it becomes law everywhere. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to see it shortly enshrined in the Constitution itself, via amendment. But, before its final triumph, let me voice a dissent.
Those trumpeting the virtues of term limits seem to have forgotten how democracy is supposed to work. When we put people into office, they don't avoid doing evil just because they are nice. Nor do they do what we want just because they have high ethical standards and a finely tuned sense of morality. Representative democracy works because officeholders want to get reelected, while voters want officeholders to do their bidding. Once you start with that basic premise, a rational reciprocity keeps everyone in line. Tinker with that logic, and you flirt with disaster.
When democracy is working properly, government policies over time conform roughly to what a majority of people want. How can we be sure that result will occur? What guarantees the triumph of the popular will? Representative democracy provides a neat, simple answer. On average, those who represent their constituents correctly will be rewarded by reelection. Those who fail in their jobs will be punished by being turned out of office. Period.
Why should this system work? Because politicians wish to keep their jobs, even rise to higher ones. They continue to represent us for fear of being punished at the ballot box. If they had no hope of reward nor any fear of punishment (a condition term limits would create for many), why should these lame-duck leaders bother to do what we want them to? Why should they take popular feelings into account as they go about their assigned duties?
How do you, the reader, like the idea of government by entirely unchecked politicians? …