The Evil of Term Limits

If I hear just one more time, from a supposed libertarian, about the greatness of term limits, I think I’m going to be sick.

Yes, yes, I know all the arguments. Kick the bums out. Promote political competition. Incumbency confers Soviet style (99%) voting majorities. This way, at least we’ll get new thieves.

There is only one problem with this scenario: it runs dab smack into an important insight of Hans Hoppe’s new book, Democracy, the God that Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy and Natural Order. (My extended review of this book will appear in a forthcoming issue of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology; here, I shall comment, only, on the insights we can glean from the publication regarding term limits.)

The main message of this brilliant economist-philosopher is, of course, that the only justified political economic system is what he calls "natural order," or what is commonly characterized in libertarian circles as anarcho-capitalism, or free-market anarchism. And his contribution to this line of reasoning is superb. However, a secondary message emanating from this book is that, given, arguendo, that we must have a government, monarchism has several strong, indeed, overwhelming advantages over democracy. (Take that, pinko liberal democrats, neo-conservatives, and all other denizens of the political-economic swamp.)

And why is this you may ask (if you’ve been Rip Van Winkling it for the past several months)? Simple: a monarch in effect "owns" the kingdom over which he is in charge. As such, he can afford to take a long run view of it, and, also, can maximize his "take" by pursuing policies that prove to be of benefit to the economy, or at least do not harm it too quickly. "Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," might well be his motto. As king, he will likely be around in the long run, by which time, to mix metaphors, he will be able to reap what he had previously sown. If he has any desires to benefit his progeny, he would prefer to hand over to them a functioning enterprise, rather than one that has been looted for short-term benefit.

In contrast, the democratically elected head thug (sorry, I meant president) has a very different time perspective. Not for him the pursuit of policies that will bear fruit in the long run. He will not be around then to benefit from them. He has only eight years, at most. Nor can he hand over to his children the keys to the treasury. No, in order to maximize his revenues, he has to grab what he can, now, and the devil take the future. His motto might be "make hay while the sun shines," or "let’s kill the golden goose, now."

What has all this to do with our subject under discussion? Term limits are to ordinary democracy without them what the latter is to monarchy. An alternative way of putting this is that the system furthest removed from monarchy is democracy with term limits. Democracy with no term limits at all occupies a position in between these other two. The ordinary politician (with no term limit) need not take an extremely short run perspective. He knows, if he can avoid being caught in bed with a dead boy, or, if he is a Republican, with a live girl (the rules are slightly different for Democrats, given the hypocrisy of the feminist movement), he’ll be in office for a nice long while. The advantages of incumbency and all that. Why, several thieves (sorry, I meant congressmen) have been in office for decades. "In the long run they are all dead," true, but if the long run takes dozens of years, the incentive to loot and run is somewhat attenuated.

However, once introduce term limits, and all bets are off. Now, the focus is on making off with as much of the silverware as possible, in the short term specified by the term limit. Take term limits to their logical extension in order to see them for what they are: suppose the term limit were exceedingly short; not eight years, or even eight months. Suppose it was eight weeks, or, even better yet, only eight days. Can you imagine the feeding frenzy such a system would give rise to! Why, there wouldn’t even be the pretence of "public good," "making the world safe for democracy," "a chicken in every pot" or any of that other politician babble. It would be a pure race to accumulate riches, with very little pretense.

One implication of this insight: the longer the term limit in term limits, the better. A term limit of hours, days or months would be an absolute disaster. Many years is better, and decades even more so. A lifetime term limit would not be so bad, as far as these things go. Then, when we arrive at the "term limit" which affords the ability to bequeath to one’s children the crown, e.g., full monarchy, we arrive at the other end of the spectrum. The point is, given any government at all, the closer to monarchy the better. The problem with term limits is that they move us in the wrong direction. If anything, we ought to be expanding present terms of office.

Although this can only be speculative, the reason many people, even libertarians, have been fooled by the siren song of term limits is that they are still in thrall to the idea that mainstream politicians (I make an exception for Ron Paul and a handful of other libertarian office holders) are legitimate. If these politicos were seen in a true light, the last thing we would want to do is leash an unending stream of them upon us, with little or no incentive to rein in their natural tendencies to pillage. If have them we must, then let us wish them the longest possible terms of office.